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What We Are Doing Now Is Not Working
And May Actually Be Making Things Worse

"Breaking School Rules"

by Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.
New York, New York

The release of a Texas study on school discipline this week should be a cause for alarm among policymakers and educators throughout the country. Unfortunately, it will probably get lost amidst the chatter that gets regarded as news these days and its importance to those who seek to find ways to reform America’s public schools is likely to go unrecognized.

Breaking School Rules is by far the most comprehensive study on school discipline conducted in recent years. The study followed every incoming seventh grader in Texas over three years and in some cases beyond high school graduation. Its most shocking finding is that nearly 60% of the students in the study were suspended at least once (this includes in-school suspension) and an alarming 31% were suspended at least four times. African American students were over-represented among those who had been suspended and subjected to the harshest forms of discipline, including placement in alternative classrooms. A shocking 83% of African American males and 74% of Latino males in the study were suspended at least once, and one in seven students in the study was suspended at least eleven times.

This study is important for several reasons. First, it makes clear that schools are relying upon suspension and other types of exclusion as a form of punishment, often without regard to how this may affect the education and social welfare of students. The study shows a disturbingly high correlation between the number of times a student is suspended and the likelihood that they will be required to repeat a grade or fail to graduate. When one considers the fact that when a student is suspended from school they typically spend a day at home watching television or playing video games, the logic behind reliance on suspension as a form of discipline becomes even more dubious. The mere fact that many schools are repeatedly suspending the same students should make it clear that suspension is not working, particularly if the goal is to change student behavior. The study makes it clear that such practices are exacerbating the challenges schools face in raising achievement and increasing graduation rates.

The study is also important because it draws attention to what many advocates have called the school to prison pipeline. Almost 15% of the students in the study had at least one record in the juvenile justice system. The vast majority of these students were African American and Latino males, and students with learning disabilities. This suggests that rather than serving as a source of support that makes it less likely a student will one day end up in prison, for a significant number of students, school is the place where entry to the pipeline to prison begins.

Those who have been following what has happened in schools since the adoption of zero tolerance policies will undoubtedly not be surprised by this report. Although these policies were adopted in the wake of the school shootings in places like Paducah and Littleton, Colorado, the impact of the policy has been most obvious and pernicious in urban areas where suspension rates are highest. In too many cases, zero tolerance has led to zero discretion and zero good judgment on the part of school administrators. While it is essential for schools to maintain safe and orderly environments that are conducive to teaching and learning, it is equally important for schools to find ways to address the underlying causes of student misbehavior if we are to avoid pushing the neediest students out of school.

One big surprise of the report is that a number of schools in Texas have found ways to maintain suspension rates that are significantly lower than schools with similar characteristics. While half of the 1,504 schools in the study had suspension rates that matched what researchers had projected, based on the characteristics/risk factors of the student population and the school campus, the other half of the high schools had rates that varied greatly from what was projected. 22.5 percent had disciplinary rates that were significantly higher than what was projected while 27.2 percent had disciplinary rates that were significantly lower. We need to learn more about these schools and what they are doing to address student behavior.

We have known for some time that students who have given up on learning are often the most difficult to discipline in school. Such students are rarely bothered when they are removed from a classroom or suspended from school. In many cases, exclusion has a negative affect on their academic progress. The key question that we should be focused on is: how do we get these students motivated to learn and re-connected to school? If this report does nothing else, hopefully it will call attention to the fact that what we are doing now is not working and may actually be making things worse. What we need is a different approach, one that is less punitive and draws upon what we know about child development.

Pedro Noguera is Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is the author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." He is also a co-editor of In Motion Magazine.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 9, 2011.

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