Here’s another installment of Dan and Larry’s discussion based on their shared focus on developing and sustaining equitable, supportive, and restorative systems of school discipline. They talk about challenges including the status quo, lack of professional development, teacher preparation, and structural racism and inequity. See previous installments here.
Larry: What generally do you see as the most stubborn challenges in this whole arena? What makes those things so stubborn, and what’s it going to take to tackle these kinds of challenges?
Dan: When there has been a long history of suspending kids at excessive rates and teachers don’t feel supported, the idea of changing the status quo is difficult. Teachers have already bought into the status quo. They feel like that’s how you deal with this problem and won’t want to change if there’s no clear sign that other resources are coming, and if the leadership within the district is not really supportive. It’s hard to change a whole system around when you have some resistance amongst leadership, resistance among teachers and inadequate support for retraining and providing teachers with a sense that if we do it differently, they are going to get some help. I think that’s where we see the largest amount of resistance.
The other big challenge is implicit bias and a general sense that these are not our kids. Sometimes it’s the poor kids, or sometimes they’ll use a coded word for kids of color, but it’s clear that there is a lack of commitment to educating all kids. There are teachers I’ve heard that don’t want kids with disabilities in their classrooms. It’s very difficult if educators don’t believe in the idea that we educate all kids, that public schools take all comers, kids with disabilities, and kids from poor backgrounds, and that our goal is to educate a whole child.
Larry: One of the patterns or changes in recent years that complicates all of this is the reduction of professional development time for teachers in many districts that we work with. There has been a sustained reduction and along with that goes a reduction in support. In many cases, there is legitimacy when teachers say, “We need support, we need training, and we need to know what to do.”
Dan: Higher education has a role to play. When you’re getting certified at the state level, many states don’t require classroom management, let alone some sort of pre-practicum experience with diverse learners. Teachers haven’t been trained in this setting, and they don’t have the management training or skills to work with kids with backgrounds that are different from theirs. Part of the problem has been that school discipline data and school climate information is not part of the accountability system. There is a big problem with all the pressure put on improving test scores without any reflection on school climate to see whether the school is healthy or not. And in that kind of environment, you do see that the incentives are all in the wrong place and cause schools to push out your lower achievers. Any student who requires your time means less of your time boosting the other kids’ test scores. When you create that tension, you really have done damage to the school environment and the mission of education in that building.
Limits to What Schools Can Do
Larry: The accountability systems are really off in education these days. They seem to be entirely about academic outcomes. Until we broaden that to a wider set of goals about social and emotional development and climate and culture as well as academic achievement, we are struggling against a lot of other pressures.
Dan: The truth is that if you have decent training and you actually improve your school climate, your test scores go up, not down. The research shows this over and over again, yet the tendency is not to believe that.
Larry: There is a reality that is part of the larger inequity in our society that in our most underserved communities there is a wider range of problems and dilemmas that families and young people face: poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, or other sorts of stresses on the family. Those play out in schools through behaviors that are challenging to deal with. It is often the case that the schools with the greatest needs have the fewest resources, so they will be short on social workers, behavior specialists, coaches, and other staff to respond to the needs of the students they have. It is part of the larger societal inequity that the schools that may have the greatest needs don’t have the resources to respond effectively and provide the supports that students need to navigate successfully through school and other opportunities.
Dan: One of the first amicus briefs I ever filed was what we called the School to Prison Pipeline briefing, in the Hancock school finance case here in Massachusetts. The judge who had been charged with oversight and implementation of a prior ruling had found that there were still very persistent resource inequalities, and our piece of it was to show that the school districts that had the fewest resources had the highest suspension rates and the lowest graduation rates.
Although we started to talk about what schools can do, there are certain limits. There is a structural racism piece of this. We have resegregated our schools; you find the highest concentrations of poverty and racial isolation in some of the poorer cities where it is much more likely that a student will have an out-of-field algebra teacher, where you are going to have uncertified or inexperienced teachers, and a huge rate of teacher turnover. There is huge teacher churn. Though there is Federal legislation that requires that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates by out-of-field, uncertified, and inexperienced teachers, very little has actually happened. Most states’ plans were not developed, and if they were, they were not implemented well.