Earlier in the week, I wrote about the books I read around the time that I went to Chicago. Today, I’m writing about books that spanned an even a longer portion of my reading year. I’m pretty sure that I started Closing the School Discipline Gap last year at about this time.
I’m listing these books in the order that I recommend you read them, rather than the order that I did.
My motivation for learning more about education is to encourage the school districts in the St. Louis area to follow the recommendations in Forward Through Ferguson, the report of the Ferguson Commission, to reform school discipline. Racial disparity in school discipline is the first step in the school-to-prison-pipeline that too many of our Black and Latinx students get sucked into.
The most clear call to action in the school discipline reform section is to eliminate suspensions for Pre-Kindergarten through third grade. But as we’ve been advocating for that the last couple of years, it’s become evident that a systemic change is required to do that well. Eliminating suspensions without providing teacher and child supports may keep kids in schools but not necessarily in classrooms. Pretty much all of the recommended calls to action for school discipline reform are required to get the one that we’ve been focusing on to happen.
Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond. The St. Louis City and County have 24 school districts with a variety of tax bases and resources. The district where I live, and have the most influence, is a “good school” district. But, it doesn’t serve our black students as well as it serves our white students. Despite the Best Intentions was a book that our administration read in the summer of 2016 and I finally got around to reading this year. It pretty well describes what is happening here, to a T.
Despite the Best Intentions is a case study of a well-resourced suburban school district (Riverview is its disguised name) serving a majority of white families, who claim to value diversity in the school population, and a sizable minority of Black and Latinx families. Racial gaps persist in almost every measure — academic tracks, GPAs, test scores, four-year college attendance. Despite the Best Intentions asks “why do these racial gaps exist?” and “how are they maintained?” in spite of the best intentions of every one involved.
The first issue they address is whether there is something about minority cultures, family attitudes to education, or negative peer pressure that contributes to the racial achievement gap. The answer is ‘no.’ If anything, families of minority students are counting more on a good education for their children to move them ahead in life than white families do. While pockets of negative peer pressure can be found among both white and black students, in general, black students felt more supported by their peers in academic achievement than white students.
Next, the book addressed the issue that is most closely related to my community organizing project — the racial disparity in school discipline. One of the difficulties is that, on paper, the system looks fair. In the implementation, it’s clearly not. Black students at Riverview and at the affluent school districts in St. Louis County are several times more likely to be referred for discipline and to receive serious consequences, like suspension, than white students. A big part of the gap isn’t so much that black students are treated harshly; it’s that white students are given a huge leeway. If white students were suddenly treated as if the rules applied equally to them, we would all be asking new questions about school discipline.
So what would it mean that the “costs” of discipline are “allocated on a nonracial basis?” In this model, all students would be stopped in the hall and asked for verification that they have permission to be there. All students would be referred out of class for infractions of school rules. All students would be suspended for possession of illicit substances. Doing so might well lead to the conclusion that the rules aren’t good rules–that they are too punitive, too cumbersome to enforce, or too burdensome on those scrutinized. If that is the case, then the rules themselves should be changed. The problem with the current system is that the rules are too often just selectively applied to those students who are deemed more in “need” of punishment, or who do not have the resources to defend themselves or question the rules. (p. 80)
The next section covers academic tracking. Riverview High School slots students in basic, honors, and AP tracks. This has the effect of re-segregating. The school might be integrated, but the classrooms are very segregated with basic classes filled with black and Latinx students and AP classes filled with white students. Some of the same dynamics are in play as with discipline. White families are more successful in getting their students released from the harsher discipline measures and in moving their students into higher-level classes, regardless of the students’ behaviors or previous academic record — and, often, without active interference because administrators assume that white parents will give them a hard time if they aren’t happy.
The ideal for tracking is that all students are working at the top of their abilities, that they are all equally challenged to reach the highest levels that they can. In practice, no one cares as much about the learning experience for basic classes as they do for AP classes.
Those placed in low tracks learn less/show lesser gains over time than similarly situated high-track students. The benefits to high-track students seem to be not the grouping itself, but the enhanced curriculum, special resources, and supports. Everyone, regardless of prior achievement, benefits from the placement. (p. 108)
So, why don’t we fix it? That’s addressed in the section titled “Opportunity Hoarding: Creating and Maintaining Racial Advantage.” The white families in the Riverview School District claim that they like the diversity. But they resist attempts to change the tracking system in ways that would integrate classrooms, so that white students actually learn in a diverse environment. Parents see themselves as advocating for their own kids, but the cumulative impact maintains racial separation and the racial gaps that we claim that we want to fix. At the end of this chapter, the authors ask how we “get the community to advocate for all its children, not just their own children.” (p. 164)
The conclusion didn’t leave me terribly hopeful, but it is clear that a lot more people need to understand what’s in this book if we’re going to make a change. And, that change is necessary if the United States is going to be competitive with the rest of the developed world, with countries that are able to better educate all of their students. My hope is that if we can figure this out in schools, where there really are good intentions, that we’ll be able to spread that method through other professions and aspects in our society.
Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management by Dominque Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. One of the solutions to the discipline disparity that the researchers found in Riverview Schools is to change the paradigm of discipline entirely. Restorative justice was considered a good possibility in both Despite the Best Intentions and in Forward Through Ferguson.
This book is a slim paperback with lots of white space and pictures, meant for busy teachers to give them a new way of working with students and their behaviors. Obviously helpful for teachers, I think this could be useful in all kinds of ways — it’s helping me be more clear in my daily listening and speaking.
Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion, edited by Daniel J. Losen. This book contains a series of scholarly articles by a variety of authors — my least favorite type of book. But, this one worked better than most because of the skillful arrangement where later articles build on what we learned in earlier ones. The first half of the book provides ample evidence of disparate discipline for students of color and students with disabilities. The second half offers some possible remedies, including restorative practices as described in Better Than Carrots or Sticks.
I purchased all three of these books. Let me know if you want to borrow one!