Grappling With Disturbing Discrepancies in Discipline
It’s sometimes thought that teachers support the suspension and expulsion of trouble-making students, but the two major teacher unions have both opposed excluding students for any but the most serious of offenses.
Certainly teachers want to be backed up by their administrators when they feel a student is acting out inappropriately, but the unions both note the extreme disruption to education that suspensions and other forms of exclusion represent. As they say, a student who has been suspended for 10 days arrives back at school needing even more help than when they left — which puts their teachers in very difficult situations. (In Huffington Post this week, I talk about new research that casts this issue in a new light.)
Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association cite, with dismay, the data that were published recently by the U.S. Department of Education, which demonstrate that African American and Hispanic students — and students with disabilities — are excluded from school at much higher rates than white students. This, even though there has been considerable research that has found that those groups of students are no more likely to engage in trouble-making behavior.
It should be noted that the department of education’s discipline data, which Education Week has nicely summarized here, needs some cleaning up — alert readers will note that one high school is listed as having expelled 96 percent of its students, which is clearly some kind of mistake. But those kinds of discrepancies probably don’t affect the overall national picture of schools treating African Americans, Hispanics, and students with disabilities more harshly and with more willingness to exclude them from school.
“African-American and Latino students, particularly males, are more likely to be suspended for subjective violations, like disrespect, insubordination or willful defiance, that require interpretation and often receive disparate administration of consequences,” the AFT’s statement said.
When I visit high-performing schools with significant populations of students of color and students living in poverty, one of the things I always notice is the overall atmosphere of respect. It is one of the first things that successful school leaders tell me they try to put in place.
The respectful atmosphere starts with how adults treat each other and students. Sometimes those leaders take over very chaotic and disruptive environments, but they don’t let students, no matter how many limits they may test, set the agenda.
That doesn’t mean that successful educators never exclude students — they sometimes have no choice. But it does mean that they know that youngsters will test limits and break rules and that those are opportunities to educate students, not exclude them from the community.
As Deb Gustafson, principal of Ware Elementary — one of the top-performing schools in Kansas — says, “How students function is an absolute consequence of how adults function.”