School Suspension Reform and the Real School

Summary: As any reform, change in suspension practices will need to be founded upon staff cohesion and communication, a clearly thought out plan that includes both the mentoring of students and accountability for their actions, and sufficient adult people power to pull it off. Better funding.
The golf course is an odd but strangely appropriate place to recollect that good ideas in education often don’t translate fluidly to real world conditions. My golf game aside, a recent conversation with a veteran teacher as we walked the fairways reminds me that implementation of many school initiatives leaves some teachers muttering behind closed doors, out of the hearing of administrators who put in play the bright idea. In the current school game, new ideas usually mean more work and more time for no more pay for teachers on the firing line.
I am one who applauds efforts to diminish out of school suspension and create other alternatives to consequence (see last post), but I was prompted to recall by this random exchange on the golf course that new baubles seldom are vetted through teachers, who then are left with sorting out the practicalities of implementation, a number of which in administrative planning were not anticipated. Teachers work in a world different from that of their administrators, who mostly forget the reality of the classroom once they have left it. The gap can dictate the difference between success and failure or, more likely as is common in education, an initiative that flames out after a few years to be replaced by the next shining idea (see the succession of different tests required for graduation from high school).
My links interlocutor, a few weeks removed from the clamor of the school year and on summer vacation, works in a middle school that is implementing an alternative to suspension, or which may have decided to stop suspending without an alternative in place.
He reported that kids who would have been suspended in the old regime were returned to the classroom without clear consequence for their misbehavior, and were running riot in his view because they are kids and a long way yet from taking responsibility for their role in culture. In his view, moreover, the lack of accountability and perceived invulnerability on the part of some kids extended to the academic realm, and therefore infected negatively the very standardized test scores upon which teachers often now are judged. In his view the school in the persons of teachers and administrators lost credibility and the respect of the kids, with counterproductive results. Not good to the extent true.
His tale has the ring of some plausibility to this veteran of school wars. Kids need to know someone is in charge, and if the buck is perceived as passed, the omen is poor for schools whose progress we need to see.
It should be obvious (but may not be in some locales) that accountability must be part of any alternative to suspension; accountability needs to be linked to some attitudinal change on the part of the student. Schools, after all, are in the business of learning, and whether we like it or not, inevitably we will not get to academic progress without stimulating emotional, social, and behavioral change in those students performing below their potential, including those who find themselves in disciplinary hot water.
Suspension as practiced historically has been first intended as a consequence to initiate behavior change, and secondly to remove a thorn in the side of the teacher who then hopes to teach without distraction. No evidence exists that I am aware of that the first purpose is served by suspension, but some effective process has to take its place because the teacher’s need to teach and the student’s need to learn with minimal errant behavioral distraction are fundamental.
That said, any partial roll back of suspensions should proceed first with a hard look at suspension history. Is there bias against kids of color in the statistics? Does a clear eyed look indicate black kids get suspended more readily than other groups, particularly whites, for the same infraction? If so, stop here first, and remedy. No use ramping ahead in good intention without confronting underlying bias.
No small task, never done, but a project of on-going feedback and self-scrutiny on the part of administrators and teachers.
A corollary note. Most teachers of good quality initiate suspension rarely if at all. Instead, they deal with misbehavior within the boundaries of their working classroom, by developing such relationships with their students that the kids work with the teacher to minimize disruptive behavior.
On the other side of the coin, research seems to conclude that a strong percentage of suspension originates from an identifiable minority of teachers. Should not suspension reform begin with a scrutiny of the practices or lack thereof in the classrooms of this minority? It may not be a racist issue; the teacher may not be up to the multiplicity of skills it takes to run a well ordered classroom.
Then the accountability piece. A good talking to won’t cut it. The “restorative justice” model used in various cities has the dual virtues of relationship building and remedial consequence within the school community. In school suspensions in the context of teachers specially chosen to pull the kid back to a member in good standing is another. But. Have a plan. Am willing to bet the school in which my golfing companion worked did not have a well thought out plan, and so dumped recalcitrant students back in the classroom without a credible intervention.
The plan needs to be developed in full consultation with the teaching staff, from whom a strong percentage of disciplinary referrals originate. Without the staff’s adherence to the principles being implemented, the project starts from behind the eight ball, and may even unintentionally be sabotaged as a result. Again listen to my golfing source and hear the voice of a teacher uncommitted to a plan which may have been ill conceived or at the very least poorly communicated to him in the limited amount of time available.
Experiment and keep lines of communication open between administrators and teachers, parents and, yes, students. Are principles of justice and consequence and caring for students observed? Be ready to discard the discredited and implement the promising. Won’t be done in a Saturday workshop or a fortnight. It’s a profound change in culture and practice.
Finally, is the staffing in place that will be sufficient to carry out the plan? More people power will be needed in this most human of games, whether through new hire or reprioritizing where staff time is dedicated. It will not be an answer simply to add on more duties to already stretched personnel, whether teacher or administrator, which has largely been the modus operandi in recent years. Here lies another argument for increased educational funding.
Remedy in current suspension practices is correct; but pulling marginal students back from the precipice is too critical to do so sloppily. Let it not be done as do too many education initiatives are, and end on the junk heap, a critical idea poorly implemented.

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3 Responses to School Suspension Reform and the Real School

  1. Deb says:

    I can think of many examples that fit here. So many decisions made without the classroom considered. It is interesting that certain teachers have written one formal discipline infraction in their entire careers while others are in my box weekly.

    • schooldog says:

      Thanks for the comments, Deb. (And welcome to you, Jason) This particular post was in homage to the realities that good ideas run into on the way to their implementation. It’s another version, I suppose, of “show me the money” if the reformer is serious about reform.

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