Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tension over School Discipline Part I: Turmoil in St. Paul

This November, St. Paul voters elected a new slate of school board candidates who “easily won seats on the board in November with endorsements from the St. Paul DFL Party and a teachers union that's increasingly been unhappy with Silva's performance as superintendent.”  .  MinnPost January 6, 2016   One of the driving concerns of many citizens, teachers, and their union, has been the rising concern over discipline.    See City Pages, "Distrust and Disorder", May 2015A MinnPost Article explained: 
Many argue that city schools have become increasingly chaotic and dangerous in the past several years as the district strives to reduce racial disparities in student discipline. Minnesota Department of Education records support the contention that violence in district schools is on the rise, but the link to policy changes is a matter of dispute.  MinnPost January 4, 2016.
MinnPost continues: "Concerns over school safety have only heightened since the election with a spike in student discipline problems and a series of high-profile incidents of student violence." See also KARE Report (St. Paul Teachers Unions convey demands to Superintendent)   See also Strib Article:  Fourth Assault Surfaces (1-8-16) Strib Article:  Third Assault

This is the first in a series of posts that explore rising concerns about school discipline, the emerging controversy over whether schools need to tighten up discipline to provide a more disciplined teacher-supportive environment, or whether tight disciplinary standards should be relaxed in order to keep more kids in school.    Let’s begin with some background: 

For the past decade, teachers across the country have complained of what they perceive as a rising challenge in the area of classroom control.   See for example, the Gates Foundation survey of teachers, Primary Sources:  America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession, 2012  The report says:
Behavior issues that interfere with teaching and learning have notably worsened, according to an astonishing 62 percent of teachers who have been teaching in the same school for five or more years. The results were reported in Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession. The report, recently released by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that the increased level of behavior problems has been seen across grade levels: 68 percent of elementary teachers, 64 percent of middle school teachers, and 53 percent of high school teachers say the same.
"This problem affects the whole classroom. Behavior problems distract other students from learning and require teachers to spend precious instruction time on discipline and behavior management. Over half of teachers wish they could spend fewer school day minutes on discipline."

One elementary educator defined the problem this way: “The time it takes to referee fights and solve bullying issues takes away from academic instruction and keeps students from achieving as much as they could.”   Concern about behavior issues was not limited to any particular demographic group. While teachers who worked in schools in low-income areas reported concerns about behavioral issues at a higher rate (65%), teachers who worked in high-income areas were not far behind. In high-income areas, 56 percent of teachers reported more behavioral issues that interfere with teaching and learning.
An article written 20 years ago (1996) for ASCD  (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) states:
Classroom management poses bigger challenges today than in the past, most experts agree. "There's no question that it's tougher today for teachers," says Pete DeSisto, director of the Cooperative Discipline Foundation in Easley, S.C. In the past, most students "agreed to be controlled" by the teacher, he says. Today, students are more likely to challenge a teacher's authority. Students' role models from sports and movies promote confrontation, not obedience, he notes.
Concerns over Use of Out of School Suspensions
As public concerns about discipline, or perceived lack of discipline, increased, some districts implemented zero tolerance policies that often led to more out of school suspensions.  Out of school suspensions eliminated problem students from the school, sent them home, in theory, but often there was nobody at home, and the suspended student wound up wandering the community, unsupervised.    Out of school suspensions delayed the student’s academic progress, broke the school-to-student connection, and often placed the student, in an environment that reinforced future bad behavior.  

Many of these suspended students tended to be students with academic difficulties, who desperately needed more instructional time, not less.   And so, the suspension was self-defeating, causing a break in the learning cycle, and making the student feel that ultimate graduation and success was becoming less and less likely.

In a critique of out of school suspensions, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership wrote:
Research shows that student suspension is a strong predictor of a student’s failure to graduate on time and likelihood of dropping out. Research mentioned in the report “Out of School and Off Track,” shows that students that are suspended just once in ninth grade increase their dropout risk from 16% to 32%. Moreover, a study by Balfanz and Boccanfuso found that students who had been suspended in middle school were half as likely to graduate on time as students who had not been suspended. Both of these outcomes can be tied to the fact that students sent out of school are missing valuable learning time and therefore, fall behind in their educational achievement.  Solutions not Suspensions Ending the Discipline Gap in Minnesota Public Schools; Minority Education Partnership | POLICY BRIEF
In a similar vein, the ASCD’s publication “Safety Without Suspensions”: argues
Clearly, schools have a right and responsibility to use all effective means to ensure that students can learn and teachers can teach. Yet school suspension and expulsion are something of a devil's bargain. lt 1s hard to Justify interventions that rely on excluding a student from school when we know that time spent in learning is the single best predictor of positive academic outcomes.
" For principals, the question becomes one of costs and benefits. Does the removal of troublesome students from school reduce disruption and improve school climate enough to offset the inherent risks to educational opportunity and school bonding? Research indicates that the answer is no."

In addition, more and more advocates began to complain that suspensions and expulsions were “disproportionately” impacting minority students and students impacted by poverty, and were thus exacerbating the achievement gap.  The challenge for education leaders was to figure out implement more effective, less exclusionary methods for maintaining safe, productive school climates.   At the same time, in Minnesota, the State began to reduce support for mental health programs for young people and effectively dump students with grave mental health challenges back into regular schools without adequate support.  Some of these students wound up in settings where teachers and staff were ill equipped to deal with them and the disciplinary framework simply was inadequate to the task. 

Across the country, in many districts, school districts sought to eliminate out of school suspensions and in some cases, boards and administrative leadership blinded themselves to the need to provide alternatives.   They began to look for quick cheap solutions.  If suspending students was a problem, if it impacted minorities, why not just stop suspensions, and force teachers to do a better job with students right there in the classroom?   The “no suspension” movement in major urban school districts has created frankly a mess in districts like St. Paul, because boards and administrators have failed to replace out of school suspensions with adequate programs to assure that classroom teachers can

In the next post, I’ll talk a bit about the some of the efforts that have fallen short, so-called culturally appropriate instruction, Positive Behavior Inteventions and Support (PBIS) and then in a following post, I’ll write about what I think must be done to restrike a balance assuring disciplined learning focused classrooms free of disruptions, while keeping kids in school.   

Jerry Von Korff is an attorney at the Rinke-Noonan Law firm.  He's  been a member of the St. Cloud School Board since 2004, where he has served as chair, vice chair, finance chair and in an number of other capacities.   Before practicing law, Jerry got his Masters in Teaching, helped start an upward bound program, and taught social studies and math in Washington, DC and New York.   

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