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?”

student discipline

Looking for the ‘why’ behind student suspensions, Memphis schools turn to behavior specialists — again

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialists Clarence Shaw and Inger Spikner speak with a student at Kirby High School in Memphis.

On paper, one student’s suspension from Kirby High School was routine. She had told her teacher to “shut up!” after the teacher made multiple attempts to stop her from talking during the day’s lesson. There had to be a consequence.

But in a meeting later, behavior specialist Clarence Shaw sought to understand the “why” behind the student’s misbehavior.

“What was going on right before you told him to shut up?” he asked the student.

“He’s got a short temper, just like I do,” she answered. “And I started saying one thing and he started getting loud. And I told him to shut up and he put me out of his class.”

The teen continued: “He wasn’t telling anyone else to be quiet. He kept calling my name out.”

That’s when Inger Spikner, another behavior specialist for the 900-student Memphis school, chimed in — and then helped to reframe the incident.

“You feel like you’re being singled out,” said Spikner, a former teacher. “When in actuality, you are because as a teacher I’ve identified you as a leader and I know if I can get you to be quiet, then everybody else will follow suit. So when a teacher singles you out going forward, I need you to know that there’s this kind of, like, an unwritten or unspoken code. You’re a leader and you don’t even realize your status.”

By the end of the 10-minute conversation, Spikner and Shaw had identified what triggered the student’s behavior, helped her think through the consequences of her words, and planned to follow up with the teacher to make sure a suspension was truly the last resort.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools hired 19 behavior specialists for the 2017-18 school year.

Shaw and Spikner are among 19 behavior specialists hired this year by Shelby County Schools to serve nearly all of its 145 schools. By giving students individual attention, they seek to pinpoint the root cause of misbehavior and then work with those students to make better choices. The goal is to help avoid school suspensions, as well as to acclimate suspended students back to school.

And it’s working. Two years ago at Kirby, the administration suspended students 333 times in the first 80 days of school. This school year, the number of suspensions during the same time period was cut in half. And the number of in-school suspensions has gone from 346 to just 47 this year.

That’s especially important because the Memphis district has the highest rate of suspensions in Tennessee, significantly contributing to racial disparity when it comes to how students are disciplined across the state. Statewide data from 2014-15 shows that Tennessee students were more likely to be suspended if they were black boys or live in Memphis. And if students aren’t in school, they’re more likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and get frustrated, creating more behavior problems.

Steevon Hunter, Kirby’s first-year principal, said behavior specialists are a welcome new resource at his school.

“When I get together with my administration team each week, one of things on our agenda is our frequent flyers … particularly with behavior. And we’ve seen those frequent flyers decrease (with the help of behavior specialists),” said Hunter.

“It’s one thing to suspend a kid,” he noted, “but it’s another to get to the ‘why.’”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Michael Spearman and Ron Davis lead Shelby County Schools’ behavior specialist team.

Behavior specialists are not new to Memphis schools. Memphis City Schools had them, but the department was cut when city and county schools merged in 2013. Then last year, the consolidated Shelby County Schools hired Michael Spearman, who is also a longtime detective for the Memphis Police Department, and Ron Davis, a former behavior specialist under Memphis City Schools, to go into 30 schools as a pilot program. They reduced suspensions by 5 percent, convincing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to invest $1.5 million to hire more behavioral specialists to serve the entire district.

Next year, the plan is to add even more.

Behavior specialists are different from counselors because they don’t have power to recommend or impose punishment. They visit weekly with students and also meet with teachers and principals to develop behavioral improvement strategies.

“You can have an impact on kids one-on-one,” Spikner said.

“We’re not so punitive,” adds Shaw. “We create that safe space. Once they open up, then we can focus on changing their behavior.”

Memphis schools haven’t used corporal punishment for more than a decade, but have been slow to provide alternative disciplinary measures. Meanwhile, there’s increasing recognition of the need to help students who are dealing with personal trauma, which sometimes can lead to behavioral problems. Behavior specialists are helping to bridge the gap, according to Roderick Richmond, who oversees the district’s student support services.

“I think that everyone throughout the community is realizing the importance of being able to provide social and emotional support for students,” he said. “We’re seeing some of the trauma that our students are experiencing — both students and parents — and when they’re experiencing some of that trauma, how we address that in the school buildings is very, very important.”

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
This “progressive discipline” chart is being implemented in schools with the help of behavior specialists.

Some actions still must result in automatic expulsion — for instance, seriously injuring a school employee, possessing or selling drugs, and having a gun at school. And the policy for automatic suspensions is also unchanged for fights, assaulting a school employee, or maliciously damaging school property.

In other cases, the goal is to “suspend appropriately” — and not to overlook harmful or disrespectful behavior to make their numbers look better, said JB Blocker, an attendance and discipline hearing official for the district.

“Everything should not result in suspension. And there are a plethora of things to happen before you suspend,” said Blocker. “But I don’t want to go to a school where teachers can get hit in the jaw or stabbed and there are no appropriate, serious consequences. So, we have to find a balance of what that looks like.”

For students suspended for more than five days, state policy requires school leaders to create a behavior plan outlining what is and is not acceptable, strategies, and potential consequences. That practice wasn’t consistent across the district, Spearman said, so behavior specialists have taken that job on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialist Kimberly Long congratulates a student at Gardenview Elementary for making progress on his behavior goals.

At Gardenview Elementary School, behavior specialist Kimberly Long carries a half-dozen binders in a small roller suitcase, including one with copies of “contracts” students have created to identify ways to improve their behavior — as well as the rewards they’ll receive for meeting their goals.

One Gardenview student wants to erase the teacher’s dry erase board as his reward when he’s done a good job of listening in class and respecting his peers. If he doesn’t, he wrote, his mother should get a phone call from the teacher.

Another student has a sketchbook to draw in when he gets upset. His teacher knows that drawing helps when he needs to calm down.

Weekly check-ins with Long reinforce the behavior lessons that teachers don’t have time to go over individually. She finds that elementary-age students crave attention, and her job is to help them channel that desire appropriately.

“They come here at school and expect that’s what they have to do: act out in order to get the attention,” she said. “They just have to be taught there are other ways.”

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.