School Reform: Race and Class and Suspension

Summary: Suspension from school for misbehavior has long contributed to chronic school failure particularly for African American and low income students. Alternatives to suspension are cropping up in various locales, many of which seem to intervene with more intensive and higher quality relationships.
Long time disciplinary and suspension practices from kindergarten through high school are receiving much overdue scrutiny, due to the obvious but previously ignored havoc routine suspension practices have played in the skill levels and retention of students, including those young ones still deep in primary school. A complex of racial and class interactions complicate the issue probably beyond the current ability of understaffed schools to resolve. Might have an idea what to do, but not the people power, from what I see.
We know that low income kids, and particularly African American low income kids, are suspended from American schools at a rate far out of proportion to their fraction of enrollment, which undermines efforts to boost skills levels, retention, and graduation rates.
Against the tapestry of the shootings in the Charleston AME, and a string of shootings of young black men by police, any examination of school discipline practices raise the same issue of relations between whites and blacks, along with the trickily interspersed issues of class and money.
Because blacks are disproportionately below the poverty line, issues of race and class get conflated with one another, though are not always the same thing.
Relationships between teachers and administrators on one hand, and African American students on the other, are a dance of power and trust in shifting degrees, in which the net public good so far is hard pressed to advance, much as in the communities in which schools reside.
Questions abound. For example, though black students are suspended well out of proportion to their numbers, we don’t know (at least I have not seen data) if they “misbehave” more regularly than their white counterparts, or are simply more likely to be disciplined where a white student might not.
The question makes a difference; are administrators responding to a greater number of incidents with black students, or are they reacting in some kind of institutionally racist way? More to the point, what is the mix of these factors, with the caveat that the balance likely varies from community to community, and with student bodies of different racial mixes.
What vectors are pertinent? Racial factors certainly. Families were ripped apart in the slave trade and for centuries of slave holding, and are still building 150 years after the Civil War. The hegemony of whites lives on in police departments and all parts of the power structure, despite progress. Shootings of young black men by police seemingly occur with too little regard for the sanctity of life; incarceration well beyond proportion of black men on some level seems to echo the prevalence of suspension in black students. Why could it be other than so that young black men and children, immersed in the black community, should not on some level evince rebellion, or defiance, or at least resistance to the structures school places upon all students? Is the school authority perceived as legitimate? On some pre-conscious levels it cannot be seen as such, notwithstanding parental dedication in the black community to support the efforts of teachers.
On the other side of the coin, I find it hard to believe that anyone other than a small minority of teachers and school folk are out and out racist, determined to keep a thumb on their black students. But school authority is part of a power structure and culture writ large that in ways both obscure and obvious deny African Americans ready access to the mainstream. Here to me is a clue that a kind of cultural ossification, or cultural feedback loop, is in place that will take will and strategy to loosen.
The two groups, white and black, to important degrees, are “other” to one another, with too scant meeting, and long seeded mistrust, despite good intentions on both sides. Schools merely reflect the wider society.
School officials, teachers, administrators and the like, may respond to the challenges that black students represent with rigidity, with a form of guilt, because they are asked implicitly to answer for ongoing crimes fully in place before they themselves were born. The healing goes well beyond the academics, and with a shortage of staff for the purpose, teachers and their black students lack the time to go beyond stereotypes of one another to any deeper relationship or understanding. The dilemma is made more rigid by the persistent though fading tendency for teaching models to emphasize the teacher in the front of the room disseminating knowledge – the “sage on the stage” – as well as the invocation of rules and order rather than a more decentralized and relationship based model.
Class also matters. In the outflow of history, our black students inhabit poverty to a degree beyond their proportion, in echo of suspension statistics. Like their white counterparts in poor or single parent households, too many lack a cognitive road map to success implicit in having observed parental attainment. With a parent scrambling to put food on the table and roof over head, supervision is strained and school work less supervised and consequently skills stunted. Trauma of various sorts is too common, together with low self-esteem and, at the bottom, inchoate fear for one’s well-being.
Students of poverty arrive in school distracted by these more elemental concerns, mostly hidden to the teacher preoccupied with math test scores; in some ways if kids do not see education as a route out of their fear, why would they engage? Certainly it is a longer walk with them through misbehavior and creative consequences short of suspension to a point where they more completely participate in what the school community has to offer.
In other ways it seems true that low income children, and black lower income children as well, present educationally different than middle and upper class children. Middle class children will work for rewards of grade and praise, which they have been taught line the route to later work success. Low income kids and black lower income kids as well respond to relationships with the adults around them. Here again is the long walk in the context of relationship where trust is established and the school adults come to be seen as a resource rather than an alien body.
This is too quick a conceptual exercise, but has important elements of truth, I believe. Black students most certainly in my experience respond to adults who care about them and give them time, across barriers of class and race, and to adults who hold them accountable for any misdeeds albeit within a philosophy that jettisons suspension for all but the most egregious issues. It’s harder, and takes more time, but here and there schools are investing in such change in the effort to keep wayward kids in the game, rather than exiling them to the street.
For example, KCTS, the Seattle PBS outlet, recently featured the efforts of an inner ring Seattle suburban school district, Highline, to eliminate most suspension with the use of classroom based interventions in the person of teachers specifically chosen for the low student/teacher ration task.
The San Francisco and Denver school districts have committed to the practice of “restorative justice,” an alternative to suspension in most cases.
In an older account from a wealthy suburban Chicago school district, Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn (DuFour) successively more adult intensive classrooms were implemented until struggling kids shifted gears in a more positive direction. Though a tale in an upper middle class setting and focused more specifically on academic progress, the principles of bonding through intensified relationship remain the same.
While many of these reports do not seem to wring hands over the money it takes to intensify staffing, it is easy to see how fiscal commitment by and to the states from the feds must be a key ingredient in taking such efforts to scale.
The dysfunction of too many of our schools boils down to the fractured relationship between blacks and whites in the society, and to the widening of economic inequality which leaves too many kids of poverty without any hope or road map out that they can perceive. Deepened relationships can repair these wounds; schools are a good place to start.

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One Response to School Reform: Race and Class and Suspension

  1. Deb says:

    “Amen” to this entry, Bruce!

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