Summary: The route to understanding disproportionate discipline of students of color runs through a broad based look at student experience in a school, and the ecology of factors that comprise that experience.
You are a student of color in a large American high school, perhaps also a recent immigrant. A friend of yours has run afoul a school code; let us say by talking disrespectfully, out of control, to a teacher. Your friend has a mouth, and when he receives a sanction, you acknowledge the justice done in your own mind. But then a white classmate wages a similarly disrespectful tirade, and is not sanctioned. You grasp that the white student has drawn a pass, and the student of color, with whom you identify, has been slammed. Angered and hurt, you withdraw from the discourse of the school in order to protect yourself, more alienated than just the other day, a stranger in this land.
Consider for a moment the impact of this event, if it were your own experience. If the sanction is suspension, under which students of color labor disproportionately, the impact is all the more confounding.
So when Filiberto Barajas-Lopez of the University of Washington was invited by staff at Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School to look into the disproportionality of discipline for students of color, he chose to take a broader look. “Disproportionality and discipline are only symptoms of larger issues,” he said. “So we stepped back and we asked students general questions about their experiences in school, the quality of school life. We also asked them about their engagement in academic disciplines.”
Among the findings, which echo our imaginary scenario above: students of color at Chief Sealth feel that teachers provide a greater share of support for students who exhibit the superficial trappings of academic ambition, who in turn tend to be white. The apparent bias in discipline paralleled a perception by students of color about teacher attentions in the classroom.
Staff members were reportedly surprised by the student revelations, which after all had stemmed from the staff invitation to Barajas-Lopez. Unconscious bias could be one culprit, or a simple failure to look beyond the postulated level of engagement in academics by students of color.
Still another angle is teachers’ limited time to focus on too many issues. The fact is that a significant portion of students simply need more help of various kinds, whether to fill in gaps in their skill set, or attention to emotional pain radiating from their family, or health issues unattended, and so forth. Approximately half of all public school students come from low income or poverty beset backgrounds, with all the burdens implied, and which too many schools lack the resources to address in a consistent and broad-based way. So we have teachers only in the breach.
Still, for a teacher there is a caveat to inquire into the silence of her students.
Barajas-Lopez implies a kind of ecosystem view of schools and of student struggles. Schools are as complex as the many lives that intersect there, staff and student alike. To look at discipline separately from the whole of life within the school walls is to miss the web of human and institutional forces that together make up the school day and which drive any one isolated interaction. Singular attention only to discipline, or to instruction, or to curricula, or to school culture, or to historical or institutional racism, or to parents, or to poverty, simply misses the variables present in any one tableau. Each factor has influence on the many vectors with which each interacts. Interventions too narrowly focused may fail where they might have succeeded with a more expansive view.
I am struck, for example, by the heart felt statement of Carol Cleveland, Principal of Seattle area Kent School District’s iGrad program, a dropout retrieval effort with outreach to students who have not completed school for the usual panoply of reasons, sometimes academic, but usually also some form of substance abuse, or homelessness, or pregnancy, or mental health issues, and on through the issues that disproportionately affect low income students. iGrad is notable as a public school alternative to the standard high school, and may well have been a charter school in a state more hospitable to such experiment. In any event, according to Cleveland, “There’s no way traditional schools could have met the needs of these students.” Amen.
The hard fact is that iGrad has not met the high hopes of its district founders in 2011 to pull dropouts back into the game and give them the platform skills that would usher them into college and acquisition of job skills. 2,625 students later, less than 500 have earned any kind of credential, diploma or other. And that’s of the kids who they’ve managed to retrieve off the streets.
Still, those 500 are kids that might not otherwise have been touched, let us remember.
The ecology of a place like iGrad is more intensely stressed than a normally struggling mainstream public high school, because the concentration of troubled youth is greater. The need for support of these students is accordingly more acute and expensive, but for the most part iGrad appears to have limped along at best with marginally more than the staff/student ratios of regular district high schools.
So it is in these alternative schools where the need for supportive structures and attention to school climate is seen in greater relief. As Claudia Rowe noted correctly in the Seattle Times, the skeptic could regard alternative schools as an “escape valve” for regular system high schools which labor to raise test scores. While the absence of alienated youth from mainstream schools may boost test scores presented to the public, their needs do not disappear and beg attention if skill acquisition is to proceed, wherever that is to happen.
Which turns the spotlight to school funding. Public schools do not typically offer the density of support structures and internal intervention that might address the myriad personal needs of students. Interestingly, an exception may be in the charter community, where a limited number of successful schools leverage foundation monies to provide targeted human support for students, often those grown in poverty. To translate that useful insight for the broad reach of public schools is viewed as too expensive by the taxpayer who fails to see his own interest in doing so. Elected legislators are reluctant to march to a different tune.
In Washington State, the Legislature is under State Supreme Court order to reform the funding mechanisms for state public schools. Perversely, the current “staff mix” funding formula flows proportionately more money to wealthy districts than to poor ones.
Under this regimen, experienced teachers who command a higher salary gravitate to wealthier districts, who receive more funding because of their higher salaried staff, which then has the same unequal repercussions across other funding channels. An alternate mechanism which would fund districts on a simple per pupil basis is eyed warily by critics who fear an incentive thereby is built in for districts to hire less experienced and cheaper teachers in order to stretch a limited pot of money further. No one said this would be simple.
State School Superintendent Chris Reykdal has proposed a compromise that would retain the staff mix formula, but funnel additional monies to districts based upon their population of poor students. At least the critical issue of support structures is still on the table, but it is far from clear at this juncture when the monies to address the full ecology of student lives in school will arrive in the schoolhouse.