First Person

An overlooked part of fixing school discipline policies: reducing fear

Last month, I walked into a public high school in the Bronx and could tell right away that something had happened. I had spent four months working as a behavior management coach at the school, and this time the atmosphere felt unusually charged.

I learned that earlier in the week, fights in the hallway had prompted administrators to call the police. The officers swarmed in and used pepper spray to break up the fights. A few minutes later, the bell rang and several hundred students walked into hallways that still stung of pepper spray and rage.

While the students were angry, they were not surprised to see police officers in their school.  “They treat us like animals,” one student told me. “It just seems like everyone is so afraid of us.”

I’ve heard variations on that line in many schools, where administrators have justified and perpetuated harsh discipline systems by viewing children as hooligans who need to be policed in order to protect the school.

The negative effect of harsh discipline on school climate has been the focus of conversations on a national and local level this year. In January, the Obama administration issued guidelines calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies—which impose uniform and swift punishments for disciplinary infractions—in our nation’s schools, citing the disproportionate suspension of young men of color. Just last week, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she wanted to shift school discipline away from punitive policies and toward restorative justice.

These efforts are long overdue, but they are only one part of what needs to happen to reverse the culture of distrust and criminalization of students that has become the modus operandi of many urban schools. Equally important is the way teachers understand misbehavior and interact with their toughest students.

As a former high school administrator in the Bronx, and now as a behavior management coach with the organization Ramapo for Children, I see that behavior issues don’t happen because kids are hooligans. They happen because students are trying to tell us something. Often students don’t have the skills to express themselves, or they hesitate to speak up because they’re put on the defensive from the moment they walk into the building.

Over time, I’ve come to see misbehavior as a form of communication. Sometimes students are telling us that they are hungry or tired. When kids act out, they are telling us that there is an unmet need or a lagging social or emotional skill that they don’t know how to fix.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges these behaviors present for teachers and for other students. Sometimes desks are thrown and students fight. Nearly every day, students use disrespectful language and don’t follow directions.

But blaming students for their behavior, and for struggles of the school as a whole, doesn’t help. Nor does suspending them for minor infractions. Helping students means using strategies like giving them breaks to cool down when they are responding to stressful situations, and letting them explain themselves before we react to their behavior. It means building relationships with students by greeting them individually, acknowledging their strengths, and purposefully reinforcing positive behaviors.

We also have to recognize that the students we’re working with are often put on the defensive from the moment they walk in the door.

Many students in New York City public schools begin their mornings in the same way: mobbed up outside of the building, waiting to go through a scanning machine and be wanded by uniformed safety officers. They are scanned for weapons and cell phones as exhausted administrators and safety officials bark at them to remove their belts, keys, boots, bobby pins and MetroCards while they wait in line.

As an administrator, I used to stand outside the building with my students as they were waiting to go inside. There were always a few moments of calm as they waited for scanning to open, but before long I would hear over the radio that a student was upset over having to remove his boots or hand over his cell phone.  I would be informed that this child needed to be removed from the line before he “gets himself arrested.” With that, our day would begin.

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First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.