digging into discipline

Major new study finds restorative justice led to safer schools, but hurt black students’ test scores

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee

In one Pittsburgh elementary school classroom, students started the day in a circle, explaining how they were feeling as others listened intently. Some were happy, but others were sleepy or sad.

“Let’s remember those who said they’re tired or frustrated so we can help them out today,” the teacher said in closing.

A similar ritual for a group of sixth-graders in another class didn’t go as well. Asked to share their week’s high and low points, students talked over each other. When the teacher shared her own low point, a student yelled, “I thought your low point would be teaching us every day.”

Those experiences mirror the mixed results of two dozen Pittsburgh schools’ move to new discipline policies known as restorative justice, according to a comprehensive study released last week by the RAND Corporation. It appears to be the first randomized trial — the gold standard in social science research — of restorative justice in schools, a practice that has taken hold across the country.

The study finds that the move accomplished a key goal of school discipline reformers by reducing the number of days students were suspended, especially for black students.

Teachers also reported their school environments felt safer, rebutting critics who claim that reducing suspensions means chaos in the classroom. That was a key argument U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to back up her recent decision to revoke Obama-era rules aimed at curbing suspensions of students of color.

“I’m very much heartened by the finding that suggest that we could actually use this to address gaps, which has just been a challenge,” said Kristen Harper, an analyst with Child Trends and a former Obama education official.

But Pittsburgh’s changes came with notable downsides, raising questions about the tradeoffs that come with new ways of addressing misbehavior.

The policies appear especially unhelpful in middle school grades, where they didn’t reduce suspension rates but did hurt test scores. The shift did not boost student learning on the whole, and black students in particular actually saw significant reductions in test scores.

“I’m concerned, but not concerned enough to throw it away,” said Constance Lindsay, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school discipline.

What happened: Ambitious changes across Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials believed they had a problem.

Over one-third of students had said in a survey that they felt angry about how they were treated by adults in their school. Like many districts, Pittsburgh had high suspension rates meted out predominantly to black students. School climate needed to change, officials believed, and alternatives to suspensions should be a part of the fix.

Pittsburgh got a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to try one approach. Twenty-two schools were randomly assigned to try restorative justice practices, and another 22 were not. The two groups of schools were compared over two school years, 2015-16 and 2016-17.

With two to four days of training, and ongoing help from coaches, the teachers were told to work with students rather than dole out punishments. Discussion circles were encouraged, both in response to misbehavior and on an ongoing basis. Disciplinary processes were supposed to become more transparent, and staff were told to express their personal feelings in response to positive or negative events.

None of that explicitly prohibited staff from suspending students, but teachers perceived the shifts — probably correctly — as discouraging them from doing so.

Nationally, this kind of move has been encouraged by civil rights groups and the Obama administration. They have pointed to evidence linking exclusionary discipline to worse academic outcomes, and argued that if schools resorted to suspension less often, students would be more engaged and avoid the academic issues that can result from missing school.

What did the study find?

As expected, suspensions dropped in schools that added restorative justice.

An interesting twist here is that, mirroring national trends, suspensions fell precipitously in both groups of schools — the ones with restorative justice and the ones without it. But suspensions dropped faster in restorative justice schools.

“It’s really encouraging and validating,” said Christine Cray, an official at Pittsburgh Public Schools who works on the restorative justice program.

In particular, 12.6 percent of students were suspended at least once in the restorative justice schools, compared to 14.6 percent in the other schools by the second year of the program.

Black students saw bigger declines in suspensions due to the program, though they were still much more likely to be suspended than white students. Restorative justice also all but eliminated the placement of students in “alternative” schools.

The academic results are somewhat grimmer. While restorative didn’t have a significant effect on reading scores, math scores scores for students in grades 3 through 8 did fall significantly.

The impact was not felt equally: It was black students, not white students, whose scores fell. A black student at the 50th percentile would have dropped to roughly the 44th percentile as a result of the initiative.

Lindsay of the Urban Institute said this could be because schools with more black students were more reliant suspensions, making the reforms more challenging to implement.

“It’s definitely a new way of doing business,” she said. “And in schools where there are more African-American students, it’s a dramatically different new way of doing business.” Indeed, the study found that black students in schools where most students were not black did not see their scores fall. White students in predominantly black schools did see declines.

In surveys, students in schools that implemented restorative justice were more likely to say their teachers struggled to manage their classes. But teachers themselves painted a brighter picture, reporting their schools had a better understanding of how to handle student behavior and a better culture for teaching and learning.

What does it all mean?

The results don’t offer clear answers to guide the polarized debate about school discipline.

One explanation for the uneven test results might simply be that teachers diverted time from academics, causing students to be less prepared for exams. That makes sense to Cray, the district official. The goal now, she said, is for “teachers to see how restorative practices can be used to complement academic instruction and not replace academic instruction.”

But it remains unclear why the shift hurt test scores in middle school grades, even though suspension rates didn’t change.

Meanwhile, the study does offer a roadmap to the challenges and benefits that can come with introducing restorative justice.

“I do feel like the kids are more willing and forthcoming with their problems and information to adults,” one teacher told researchers. “I feel like some of them do consider us to be more of an ally to them.”

The most basic challenge teachers said they faced was an implacable one: a lack of time, particularly for middle-school teachers with short class periods to spend with students.

“Teachers described the immense amount of curriculum they were obliged to cover and the assessments they had to prepare students for,” researchers wrote. “In light of those responsibilities, sparing 20-plus minutes for circles to build community or respond to conflict in the classroom seemed an insurmountable challenge to some.”

Not all students responded, either. “There are several students who have not benefited from the use of restorative practices at all,” one teacher said. “Rather, they disrespect it and scoff at it as a lenient form of discipline. Because of these students, it becomes harder to implement restorative practices on the whole.”

The researchers also suggest that the support offered to teachers in the program, while substantial, was not enough. Teachers described monthly team calls with a restorative justice coach as largely useless; more helpful were in-person visits, but they were infrequent.

Still, nearly two-thirds said the initiative had improved their relationships with students. Forty-five percent said it improved student behavior.

For now, the study is one part of a small body of research looking at whether these kinds of alternative discipline strategies work. But more can be expected soon — as part of the same federal grant program, a number of other studies have been funded elsewhere, Harper noted.

It’s also possible that results will change as teachers and schools adapt to the changes.

“Two years is a very short amount of time,” she said. “Much of the work involves a mind shift and a culture shift, not just training in different practices.”

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.