discipline dispute

As national debate over discipline heats up, new study finds discrimination in student suspensions

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Black students in Louisiana are suspended for slightly longer than white students after being involved in the same fight, according to new research that adds to a roiling national debate about school discipline.

The study comes as the U.S. Department of Education appears to be considering rescinding Obama-era guidance on school discipline. Its findings — that black students are treated more harshly — bolster the case of civil rights groups that want the guidelines to remain, noting that suspension rates for America’s black and poor students remain disproportionately high.

“Given that we find that direct discrimination occurs in this context, with a black and white student receiving different punishments for the same exact incident, it seems likely that direct discrimination would [also] occur where discipline disparities are less visible,” the researchers write.

Still, the difference between suspensions given to black and white students was quite small, amounting to a fraction of a school day.

The research, released by the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University, used a trove of discipline data from Louisiana that stretched from 2001 to 2014. Consistent with past research, the study finds that black and poor students have substantially higher suspension rates than white and more affluent peers.

Figuring out why is tricky. Is it because certain groups of students behave differently, or because teachers and administrators respond differently to the same behavior?

The study can’t rule out the possibility that the small difference in length of suspensions was due to factors like whether one student instigated the fight. But the researchers argue that a fight between two students is an objective offense where school officials would be expected to treat participants similarly. The fact that even in this context there is evidence of bias, however small, is worrisome, they say.

The study is directly relevant to the debate about the 2014 federal guidance, which warned schools that the Department of Education might initiate civil rights investigations “based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information.” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said she was “looking closely at” this guidance, and conservatives have urged her to scrap it altogether on the grounds that it has contributed to disorder in schools.

Much of the debate turns on how to interpret well-documented disparities in suspension rates.

Mike Petrilli, a critic of federal efforts to monitor school discipline and the head of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, analogizes the debate to the discussion around the test-score “achievement gap.”

“Nobody would say that we’re going to look at these achievement gaps and say that all of the achievement gap is because teachers are racist,” he said. “We might say part of that is.”

Petrilli suggests that the guidance has schools fearing that they risk being accused of discrimination based just on suspension differences across student groups.

Catherine Lhamon, who served as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the education department under Obama and is now the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that guidance doesn’t suggest that suspension rates should be interpreted as proof of discrimination. “Data alone is not evidence of discrimination,” she said, but it “is relevant to an inquiry.”

The Tulane study marks an attempt to see if discrimination really is at play. The researchers compared the length of suspensions given to black and white students for the same infraction in Louisiana. Black students, they found, are suspended for longer — 2.6 school days, compared to 2.2 days. This gap shrinks but still exists when comparing black and white students in the same school, grade, and school year.

That suggests, but does not prove, that there is discrimination involved in those decisions.

The researchers then examined suspensions after a fight between a black and a white student. They found that, even controlling for past incidents of fighting, black students receive longer suspensions — though the difference was very small, equivalent to black students facing one additional day of suspension for every 20 fights.

Past studies have come to conflicting results on the question of bias: Consistent with the theory of bias, black students are more likely to be suspended for those discretionary offenses than objective behaviors. Black teachers are also less likely to suspend black students compared to white teachers and perceive behavior of black students differently.

On the other side, there is evidence that the race-based gap in discipline is accounted for by past behavioral issues (though if those prior behaviors were reported with bias, that would invalidate these results).

The Tulane study points out that even if discipline disparities are not caused by direct bias at the school level, they likely are due to broader societal issues, including long-standing discrimination.

Even if schools are responding to genuine differences in behavior across groups of students, the authors write, “this exonerates neither schools nor broader societal forces from contributing to varying levels of misbehavior.”

As DeVos reconsiders, the debate intensifies

Meanwhile, Petrilli says he is trying to reduce the intensity of the debate, writing a blog post titled, “In search of common ground on school discipline reform.”

The debate seems to be growing more polarized instead.

Just recently, Petrilli organized a visit for teachers who said school discipline reforms had led to chaos in the classroom to speak to leaders at the U.S. Department of Education. Katherine Kersten, who wrote an essay critical of discipline reform efforts titled “No Thug Left Behind,” helped connect Petrilli to Minnesota teachers for the visit.

(Kersten said she didn’t write the title, though didn’t see a problem with it. “Some children are thugs,” she said in an interview.)

And an op-ed in the New York Daily News by Max Eden and Robert Pondiscio linked school discipline reform efforts in New York City to the recent stabbing death of a high school student. (There’s no evidence that changes in discipline policies led to this fatality, though they point to surveys showing a decline in students who felt safe at the school.)

Progressives are also on high alert about the Trump administration’s record on civil rights.

In an op-ed earlier this year, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan linked student suspensions to a broader critique of the administration, writing, “Leaving enforcement of civil rights laws to states will breed chaos, undermine the education of millions of children, and subject students of every age to abuse, neglect, indifference and outright racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant hostility.”

While conservative critics of the discipline reform efforts have embraced teachers who say the policies have been poorly implemented, national teachers unions say they support the existing guidance.

“Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same infractions,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “We must confront the racial bias that underlies that reality, which the current guidance attempts to do.” Weingarten has written about her own change of heart about harsh discipline policies.

Harry Lawson, the director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, also said the union was opposed to rescinding guidance, but said some places that have implemented discipline reforms have hit challenges.

Even supporters have acknowledged as much. A report by the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that backs reduction in exclusionary discipline, for instance, found that the Miami-Dade school district’s promise to eliminate student suspensions led to the creation of “student success centers” that became “little more than warehouses for students who have been removed from school.”

Lawson said the key is training and resources to implement alternatives to suspensions. He said the NEA sometimes hears feedback from members akin to the teachers from Minnesota who spoke to Department of Education officials — but that they weren’t representative.

“What we also hear more of is a recognition from our members that there is something wrong [with exclusionary discipline],” he said. “And generally what they are asking is, what do we do … and can you all support us?”

How I Teach

Why this educator uses autumn leaves to teach vocab to Memphis’ youngest students

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Trudie Owens, a lead teacher at Porter-Leath in Memphis, says incorporating literacy into every lesson is key, including lessons about fall leaves.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Trudie Owens says education runs in her blood.

Trudie Owens

Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her grandmother taught middle school, and two sisters teach at the high school level. Owens feels called to work with Memphis’ youngest children.

More than 30 years ago while in high school, Owens began helping at a Memphis day care. Now a classroom veteran, she gets observed by other early childhood educators during trainings at the new Early Childhood Academy operated by Porter-Leath, the largest provider of such programs in Memphis.

“The best part about being an early childhood teacher is watching the incredible growth that occurs in children in the early years,” said Owens, who teaches 1- and 2-year-olds. “They are so excited to learn and try new things.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Owens about how she incorporates early literacy into every lesson, including one about autumn leaves, and what she wishes more people knew about how to stimulate a young child’s thinking. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What does your classroom look like?

Our classroom is colorful, inviting and nurturing. It is a place that supports children’s creative ideas and encourages them to discover things on their own. One of the reasons I try to make my classroom nurturing is so the children view it as a home away from home. For them to start to learn, talk, sing and dance, they need to feel at home. Some children are coming in with hard home situations and trauma. We have to be mindful of this when we design our classrooms.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

A lesson I call ‘’Welcome Fall Leaves and Trees’’ lets children sort leaves by colors and shapes, touch tree bark, and talk about weather/season change by using different books. I’m inspired from the season change of summer to fall. The leaves on trees are beautiful and the fall flowers are blooming. My favorite colors are fall colors: red, yellow, orange, brown, purple and a little green.

A lot of people don’t understand how incredibly important it is to talk to a child from the time they are born. By taking children outside and speaking with them about the changing seasons, we cover so much vocabulary. It’s a hands-on activity, but it’s also increasing the children’s own personal vocabularies.

Many children don’t have the literacy skills they need when they arrive at elementary school. How do you incorporate literacy at the early childhood level?

It’s in all of our activities. You can learn a lot about children’s interest from observing their play. We talk with them about what they’re interested in, whether it’s little race cars or building blocks. Conversation with a child stimulates their thinking and increases understanding. I’m not talking about baby talk, but adult-like conversations. These early experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being. A huge part of building a student’s literacy is getting them talking.

You also want the children to have fun. We know that young children learn best through play. And we try to recognize very early if a child (struggles to) form certain words or talk at all. Porter-Leath provides an array of services, and if we catch a learning disability or speech impediment early on, that child won’t fall as far behind.

What do you wish people knew about early childhood teaching and learning?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Owens works on vocabulary and motor skills with her students while creating a “handprint” tree.

The main thing I wish people knew is that conversations (with young children) stimulate their thinking and increase understanding. Children learn to communicate, cooperate, problem-solve, negotiate, create, and practice self-control. We can learn a lot from each other when we really listen.

For our kids, their language skills are just starting, and they’re often still doing a lot of babbling. But they learn to speak by hearing us and talking to one another. We are always talking to them. It’s things like, when a student is playing with a ball, asking “What color ball are you throwing?” Saying the color to them and asking them to repeat you. These interactions are so important to their development.

If you could change anything about the way Tennessee does early childhood education, what would you change?

I would offer more grant money to fund programs like ours. Memphis doesn’t have free pre-K space for every child who needs it. We have so many on our waiting list.

A race against time

Can this Detroit principal help her students learn quickly enough to save her school?

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Principal Alisanda Woods checks on a student writing assignment in a sixth-grade English class at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-MIddle School.

Students were clearly hard at work when Principal Alisanda Woods stopped by her school’s sixth grade English class one morning last month.

Some of the sixth-graders were working on a writing assignment. Others plugged away at a reading comprehension lesson, answering questions about an article they had read on conflict resolution. One child worked independently on a laptop.

The room was quiet enough that students were able to meet one-on-one with their teacher to discuss goals for an upcoming test. To a casual observer, it seemed like everything was running smoothly.

But Woods was not a casual observer. And simply having a classroom run smoothly wasn’t going to cut it at this school — not any more.

“We’ve got sixth graders at a third-grade level,” Woods said. “We need to take it up a notch.”

Woods’ school, Bethune Elementary-Middle School, was one of 38 in Michigan that were threatened with closure by the state last spring after years of rock-bottom test scores.

The schools on the closure list — including 24 in Detroit — were allowed to stay open only after their districts signed “partnership” agreements with state officials requiring the schools to boost their scores — and do so quickly — or face additional consequences.

What those consequences would be isn’t clear. The partnership agreements refer vaguely to the option to “consolidate or otherwise reconfigure” schools that don’t turn things around. But most observers suspect that schools like Bethune face shuttering if things don’t improve. Woods and her staff could be fired. And her students could face yet another disruption to lives that, in many cases, have already been rocked by violence, homelessness and other trials of poverty. All of Woods’ students — 100 percent — are from families whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level, she said.

There are countless schools like Woods’ across the country that are staring down the threat of state or district intervention, struggling to get better results after years of falling short.

Whether Bethune will be one of the schools that manages to beat the odds and succeed remains to be seen, but observing what’s happening at Bethune offers a window into what schools like this are up against — and the tools they’re using to try to gain some ground.

“This is a heavy lift,”  Woods said. “We’re dealing with things that are not always in our control, but … all I can say is, I have a lot of hope.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Principal Alisanda Woods talks with a sixth-grade student at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School about an online learning tool he’s using.

Woods’ challenge is particularly daunting because she has to do two very difficult things in a very short period of time.

She must take a school full of children who are far behind their peers and get them caught up on material they should have learned years ago. That won’t be easy in a school where tracking tests show that roughly 90 percent of students are two or more grades behind where they should be in reading and math, Woods said.

And, at the same time, she must make sure they gain the skills and knowledge they’re expected to learn this year, in their current grade, even if that means working with fractions before mastering whole numbers or with paragraphs before mastering sentences.

Because regardless of why a child is behind, regardless of where the student previously attended school, regardless of whether family illness or unstable housing might have forced a child to miss too many days of class, and regardless of whatever else is going on at home, the state’s annual high-stakes M-STEP exam is the ultimate benchmark, and it won’t be impressed if a student jumps from say, a third-grade level to a fifth-grade level. If that student is in the sixth grade and isn’t doing sixth-grade work, he won’t get a passing score.  

And if not enough students can leap over that grade-level threshold, then Bethune won’t meet partnership agreement targets that require the school to increase the number of students who can pass the M-STEP by 3.6 percentage points over the next two years.

That could be tough at a school where, last year, the percentage of students who passed the English Language Arts and Math exams in grades 3-8 was 0.6 percent — a handful of the 348 kids who were enrolled in those grades.

But more alarming than the threat of consequences from the state or district, Woods said, is the knowledge that if her students can’t reach grade level, they won’t be prepared for high school.

“It’s not about whether central office is watching. I don’t care,” Woods said. “It’s about our babies here. We want them to make progress.”

Woods says she’s determined to help each student accelerate two years this year.

“If our kids only grow one year, our kids will still be way behind,” she said. “We’ve got to speed it up.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Second grade teacher Angela Willis leads a reading lesson at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-MIddle School.

Many of the challenges facing Bethune are outside Woods’ control.

There’s nothing she can do, for example, about the fact that roughly half of her students are new to Bethune this year. Foreclosures, tax auctions, and other housing challenges in Detroit have conspired with school choice laws to create a culture in which families change schools frequently, hopping again and again between district and charter schools, even weeks or months into the school year. (Bethune’s turnover was worsened this year by the school’s return to the main Detroit school district after five years in a state-run recovery district. Among other things, the transition changed the rules about who could ride the school bus to Bethune.)

Though the school has a social worker, an attendance agent, and someone from the state Department of Health and Human Services to help families weather tumultuous home lives, there’s not much the school can do about the poor transportation or untreated health conditions that make it difficult for some kids to get to school every day.

More than a third of Bethune’s students — 36 percent — had missed more than two weeks of school by the end of November, enough to be characterized as “chronically absent” — and it hadn’t even snowed yet. Attendance at Detroit schools typically nosedives in the winter.  

Woods also doesn’t have much control over who teaches at her school. Since many of her teachers from last year faced steep pay cuts when the school reverted to the main district this summer, many left. That meant Woods had to fill 19 of her 27 teaching positions over the summer. And she had to do so at a time when a severe teacher shortage was forcing schools across the city to scramble for educators.

She found enough teachers, but didn’t have the luxury of requiring them to do a model lesson or to go through a lengthy interview process to get hired.

“If you came in and you were certified,” she said, you pretty much got the job.

Woods can’t do much about class size, either. She considers herself lucky to have enough teachers for all of her classrooms, but a first grade class has 39 students. A third grade class has 41.

What Woods can control, she said, is what happens inside her classrooms. And that’s where she’s directing her attention.

“The focus for me has got to be on instruction. Period,” she said. “It can’t be anything else.”

So when Woods visited that sixth-grade classroom — taught by Samantha Vann, a second-year teacher who started at Bethune in September — she was looking for any possible way to maximize learning.

The boy on the laptop, she noted the next day when she met with Vann in her office, didn’t seem like he was focused enough while using an online learning program.

“He was just clicking on stuff,” Woods said. “We don’t have time like that to waste.”

The boy should instead be given a specific assignment based on the skills that tracking tests found lacking.

And while that reading comprehension lesson was interesting and the kids were clearly engaged with it — “It’s a great topic,” Woods said — she was concerned that the article the students were reading was too easy for sixth-graders.

“They need a little more rigor,” she told Vann.“Just because I’m not a great reader doesn’t mean I can’t comprehend [sixth-grade materials]. You still can teach the skill.”

Woods suggested that Vann replace the passage on conflict resolution, which had been taken from an elementary school teaching resource called K-5, with a passage from an old M-STEP exam.

“We just want to make sure we expose them to [the M-STEP] because if we wait until 30 days before the test, we’re in trouble,” Woods said.

*       *       *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Bethune Elementary-Miiddle School Princiapl Alisanda Woods listens in as sixth-grade teacher Samantha Vann meets individually with students.

Districts and states have long searched for silver bullets for improving schools: new academic programs, new technology, new grade configurations, even yoga and meditation. Many states have ramped up consequences for failing schools or have encouraged competition from charter schools in hopes that higher stakes would yield better results.

The partnership agreements, which are Michigan’s latest effort to turn around struggling schools, don’t have the teeth of earlier efforts, like last year’s aborted plan to shutter as many as 38 struggling schools across the state.

Gov. Rick Snyder turned to the agreements last spring when he took closings off the table after months of political pressure and lawsuits. But the decision angered GOP lawmakers who said the governor was ignoring a law he signed last year that required the state to shut down persistently low-performing schools in the city. (A new governor will be elected next year who could take a different approach).

Public school supporters embraced the partnership agreements, which were the brainchild of State Superintendent Brian Whiston, as a way to support schools rather than punish them. A state education department press release this week touts support schools have gotten with things like data analysis and improving school culture and climate.

But in Detroit, the support available to partnership schools is limited, just because the needs are so great. The state just added another 24 Detroit schools to the partnership agreement based on low scores in 2017. That means that 50 Detroit district schools — nearly half of the 106 schools in the district — are now subject to the agreement. And most of the other district schools are struggling as well.

So while Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s ramping up support for all districts schools, those in the partnership program aren’t likely to get many extra services beyond some additional coaching for teachers and principals that’s being provided by Wayne RESA, the county intermediate school district. Vitti says partnership schools will be among the first to get new programs such as student mental health services, but there are no dedicated extra funds to help these schools.

For now, Woods says she’s relying on what she has. She has tracking tests to figure out which skills students need to learn. She has teachers’ aides and corps members from the City Year program, which places recent college grads in schools to work as tutors, to make sure that students get one-on-one or small-group time to work on academic deficits.

And she has devoted teachers who she tries to support, however she can. “You do a lot of informal observations,” she said. “You give a lot of feedback, making sure there are accountability measures in place, making sure teachers are teaching the curriculum and that they’re using their planning time to plan and do great instruction.”

She sits in on classrooms, then brings the teachers into her office the following day to strategize about what’s working, and whether there’s anything they could be doing to move the needle on the M-STEP.

When she saw that a seventh-grade social studies teacher was asking students to give oral presentations on different countries, she asked if he could require the students to also write a report.

“The M-STEP is all writing and our blocks are 75 minutes. Are they really getting enough time in ELA to practice writing?” she asked the social studies teacher, Stephen Reynolds.

She urged him to grade students on not just what they write, but also to work with them on how to write.

“The next project, writing has got to take place for all of them because M-STEP is coming,” she said, and Bethune students can’t afford to wait until right before the test to start preparing. “Our kids are so far behind that they need to start this now.”

And while you’re at it, she asked Reynolds as they met in her office, could you possibly get the students to include math in their next presentation?

“I could,” Reynolds said. “Maybe some bar graphs?”

When Woods sat in on a second-grade reading lesson, she thought the students were connecting well with their teacher, Angela Willis, but she was concerned that Willis had called on the same student more than once.

“Be careful with that,” Woods cautioned when she met with Willis the next day. “You might not realize that you pick some of the same babies because sometimes we’re just moving so fast but … We need to really pay attention to are they responding to what we’re doing? … Who are the babies that are making progress, that are getting it? And who are the ones that … are still not getting it? We have to provide them with additional support.”

In every meeting with teachers, Woods said she asks them what they need and how she can help.

“You want people to feel good when they walk away and feel empowered to do the work because if they feel attacked, they can go make $7,000 more at the local charter school,” she said. “My thing is, I build people’s capacity. If you have a desire to teach, I’ll get you where you need to be.”

The teachers say they appreciate the feedback.

Vann said she hadn’t been sure how to find passages from the M-STEP before her meeting with the principal. Now, she said, she would hunt them down.

“I’m looking at my class through my eyes and I’m thinking it’s going smooth, but sometimes you can come in and see something,” Vann said. “If you notice something that I didn’t notice, I’m going to take your direction and then either try to fit it in or accommodate it any way.”

It can be daunting working with kids who have so many needs, said Reynolds, who is new to Bethune this year after working for 16 years in Detroit charter schools. But teaching is the best tool he has to help them, he said, so that’s where he’s focused.

“You will move the bar,” he said. “You just got to go in and do what you can.”

Woods isn’t promising fast, sweeping change at Bethune but she said she believes that things can improve for students.

“This is work that’s going to take a while, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “It won’t come overnight. But can it be done? Sure it can.”

Still, she added, “The problem is, you get new students and then they come with a different set of baggage. And then you start all over, so to speak.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Social studies teacher Stephen Reynolds meets with his school’s principal and an academic administrator to discuss ways to incorporate more writing in social studies to help students prepare for a high-stakes exam at Bethune Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.