Collision Course: School Discipline and Education Reform

By Sarah Yatsko

The education reform debate can be like a spinning top. It changes course abruptly and without warning but it remains largely focused inward. The dizzying debate around education policy is on a collision course with another spinning top: the overuse and impact of harsh school discipline practices. The clash may feel like it came out of nowhere, but for those of us who follow these parallel debates, the only surprise is that it has taken this long.

For over a decade, my job was to craft alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders. In the early 1990s, soon after I began this work, the juvenile crime rate soared and, along with it, a “tough on crime” increase in punishment for both the most severe and the most minor offenses. I remember visiting two clients who were cellmates: one was there for exchanging gunfire with a rival gang, and the other for a snowball fight on the school playground. Juvenile courts had always taken seriously children who wielded guns, and appropriately so. My caseload now included children who wielded snowballs, snatched Halloween candy, or got into shoving matches.

This same wide net of harsh punishment was cast in school discipline leading up to and in the wake of rare but widely reported school shootings — especially the horrifying Columbine High School incident. As with “tough on crime” laws, the new “zero tolerance” policies didn’t change how schools treated students who assaulted teachers or brought guns to school: they continued to get expelled and referred to law enforcement just as they always had. However, there was a sharp increase in the number of students caught in the highly discretionary zero tolerance zone, an unintended result of trying to prevent another Columbine. Unfortunately, these new policies have failed to show any corresponding increase in school safety.

Well-meaning policies can have disastrous consequences

As I traced the steps of my clients backward from arrest, I saw how school suspension or expulsion was far too often the pivotal and heartbreaking turning point toward delinquency. It is cold comfort that the “school to prison pipeline” is now a widely accepted phenomenon. “Breaking Schools’ Rules”the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s landmark 2011 study on school discipline, confirmed the worst fears of anyone who cared about troubled children in schools. In far too many schools, suspension and expulsion were no longer the last-resort measures they were designed to be.

The CSGJC researchers examined the discipline records of one million Texas public secondary school students and learned that roughly six out of ten had been suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and tenth grade. Rates for special education-identified students were over seven in ten. Researchers held up to 80 factors constant and isolated the impact of student race on the likelihood of suspension or expulsion. They learned that ninth-grade African American boys were 31 percent more likely to receive discretionary out-of-school discipline than their white male peers (rates of mandatory discipline infractions were similar across all races). But the real clarion call was the findings on impact: a discretionary out-of-school sanction nearly tripled a student’s likelihood of juvenile justice contact.

My desire to work to reverse these well-intended policies that have had disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable children brought me to CRPE. Since then I have been pulled in to a new (for me) spinning top. I have been sucked into the important debates that dominate education reform — from charter schools to testing to teacher evaluations. Yet personal ties have kept me connected to the school discipline conversations. A recent joint initiative from Eric Holder at the Department of Justice and Arne Duncan at the Department of Education outlining national guidelines on school discipline is just one of many signs that these two spinning tops and my two worlds are coming together.

Course correction

The question now for my hard-working and deeply committed colleagues in education policy is how we choose to respond to the sobering data on school discipline. The Atlantic Monthly article on “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans and elsewhere lays out pivotal questions: Will high-performing charter schools with high suspension and expulsion rates continue to defend these rates, as Eva Moscowitz of Success Academy in New York has done? Or will they follow the lead of Collegiate Academy in New Orleans and face the data with a steely resolve to change?

States and districts must consider the common but rarely discussed perverse financial incentive traditional school sectors use to suspend and expel. For those left behind, class size goes down and per-pupil allotments rise. The troubled child becomes someone else’s problem. Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso started his career in education in Newark teaching teens labeled by the district as “emotionally disturbed.” Those students shaped his vision of how to run a school system. When he took the district helm in Baltimore he quietly flipped the classic perverse incentive on its head. Although the district’s shift in emphasis to intervention and prevention is often credited for the dramatic decrease in suspension and expulsions, I believe that Alonso’s introduction of student-based budgeting was the real hero. In Baltimore, the money follows the child — including right out the school door if they are expelled. This policy change forced principals to consider the actual costs of imposing an out-of-school punishment. For intervention and prevention to work, principals must buy in to the idea.

Although LinkedIn’s algorithm can’t quite make sense of my two worlds, it is obvious to me what connects them. Those who work to reduce harsh discipline practices or scale up high-performing, high-poverty charter schools share a passion for equity. As I watch the spinning tops, I can only hope that those of us who have pushed for bold changes in education will now consider reforms in light of their impact on school discipline. Otherwise, we risk a collision that could knock us — and the children we care about — far off course.

This piece originally appeared on 11/20/14 on

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