explainer

What it will mean if Betsy DeVos rolls back the Obama school discipline rules

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety on August 16, 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Two years ago, it seemed like scrapping Obama-era guidance around school suspensions might be at the top of Betsy DeVos’s to-do list as education secretary.

The rules encouraged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions, and have been supported by progressives and civil rights groups. But they have been heavily criticized by conservatives, who say they’ve made schools less safe. Still, the guidelines have stayed in place, even as conversations about school safety have taken on new intensity.

The Washington Post reported Dec. 10 that the final report of the school safety commission convened after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will recommend that the guidance be eliminated. That would be a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools, a connection that remains questionable and hotly debated. The report is expected this month.

“The Federal Commission on School Safety has studied the topic of school discipline extensively and will make a recommendation on the Obama-era school discipline guidance in its final report,” Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill said.

The debate about these guidelines is long-running and fierce. Here’s a guide to what’s at stake and what to look out for as decisions are made.

Catch me up: What is this guidance?

This all centers around a letter issued in January 2014 by the education and justice departments. It said that school leaders should seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom, especially when their behavior isn’t violent.

The guidelines also pushed districts to take a close look at how students of different racial groups are punished. The letter said that disparities could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.

Leaders from both departments made clear that this was an issue they would take seriously. “We will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” they wrote.

Many districts were already changing their approaches. Research on the connection between suspensions and dropout rates, among other issues, had been pushing districts like Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and curb suspensions.

It’s unclear exactly how many more districts adjusted their policies because of the directives — one survey of superintendents in 47 states found that 16 percent of districts did — but Obama officials certainly encouraged the shift.

Why has it become such a big deal?

The short answer is that the guidance has become significant to both the political left and right, with practical and symbolic import. On the left, it represents the fight against racism and the potential of the Trump administration to set that back. On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.

For instance, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, has described the guidance as “coercive.” According to Eden’s analysis, at least 350 districts were investigated by the Office of Civil Rights from 2009 to 2017 “for the purpose of intimidating them into adopting discipline policies favored by the Obama administration.” In his view, the guidance trampled on local authority, pushing districts to poorly implement changes that led to disorder in schools.

National school boards and superintendents groups have also been critical of the guidance, saying it cut into local autonomy. Teachers in certain districts have reported that they have been hamstrung without good alternatives to suspension. Some of those critics got a hearing before department officials late last year.

DeVos has also heard from supporters of the guidance. To them, the guidance simply codified longstanding laws meant to protect against discrimination. Some have conceded that changes were poorly implemented in some cases. But much of the education world — including teachers unions and certain education reform groups — has urged DeVos to maintain the Obama-era rules.

These tensions have likely been heightened by the president. Rescinding the guidance, to some progressives, would be an extension of the Trump administration’s racist policymaking. Indeed, the language used by some opponents has had racist undertones, like an essay in a Manhattan Institute publication titled “No Thug Left Behind.” Breitbart, the far-right site, has described the guidance as an “Obama-era school leniency policy of reducing reports of violent behavior committed by minority students.”

How did this all get connected to the school safety commission?

The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted the Trump administration to convene a school safety commission and reinvigorated conservative opposition to the discipline guidance.

Commenters blamed Broward County’s alternative discipline programs, meant to reduce suspensions, for allowing the shooter to escape scrutiny for earlier offenses. And they blamed the Obama guidance for leading to the creation of Broward’s program, a claim that percolated through conservative media.

That connection doesn’t make sense. Broward’s program launched in 2013 — before the Obama administration issued its 2014 guidance. But politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio repeated the claim that the guidance contributed to the massacre, which killed 17.

Trump named DeVos chair of the school safety commission, and “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” was one of its areas of focus, suggesting the decision was inevitable.

The Post reports that the commission, as expected, will not recommend new gun restrictions.

It’s also worth noting that legitimate questions have been raised more recently about Broward County’s initiatives to reduce suspensions, which were held up as a model by the Obama administration. The Broward superintendent originally claimed that shooter Nikolas Cruz was not part of district’s Promise program, which was meant to avoid referring students to police after non-violent offenses. A local NPR station would later report that he was. Other local reporting suggested that teachers felt ill-equipped to implement the disciplinary changes, and some reported that student behavior got worse as a result.

What will changes mean for schools and students?

The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking and embolden opposition to discipline changes already underway.

Still, a number of districts have already said they are committed to seeing through the changes they’ve made.

If the guidance is rescinded, “I think in our district, it wouldn’t change anything,” Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, said recently. Still, he said, “I think it helps when you have voices like that at a federal level making a statement.”

Going back to the core issue here — do suspensions really harm students?

There’s lots of evidence that students who get suspended have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than students who don’t get suspended. It’s also well documented that black students, students with disabilities, and boys are much more likely than others to be suspended or expelled.

To critics of exclusionary discipline, this is strong evidence that those disciplinary tactics are deeply problematic. But it’s also true that the connection doesn’t prove that suspensions harm students — only that students headed for worse outcomes are also the students who get suspended, which is not surprising.

Recent research gets closer to pinning down cause and effect, though. In Louisiana, a study  found that when a black student and a white student got into a fight, the black student was suspended for longer, though the difference was very small. And a handful of recent studies have shown that suspensions do actually cause lower test scores, though again, the effect was fairly small.

And has cutting back on suspensions made things worse, a key claim of discipline reform critics? There’s limited evidence, one way or another. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result.

Meanwhile, there’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.