In this part of the conversation between Dan Losen and Larry Dieringer based on their shared focus on developing and sustaining equitable, supportive, and restorative systems of school discipline, they touch on policy, the role of police, and how data shines light on the problem and solutions. See previous installments here.
Larry: What Federal and/or state policy changes do you think would do the most to ensure continued progress in creating supportive school discipline and fostering equity in our schools?
Dan: I would start with the data because we count what we care about. If we are not counting how often and who is suspended or expelled, there could be a lot going on that is undermining our goals. When we are evaluating a new curriculum or new training program for teachers, if we are not looking at the indices of school climate, then we are missing a huge part of the picture and we are putting undue emphasis on the things that we do count, such as test scores. If you are not accountable for whether they graduate or not, whether there is high grade retention, or high rates of suspension or expulsion, then you pave the way for a totally inefficient system even with good intentions of trying to raise test scores. So the accountability and the data pieces go together. We have to include accountability for improving school climate.
The Federal and state governments also can provide support and training from higher education by mandating certification requirements and coursework about working with diverse learners and culturally responsive training. They can require understanding of implicit bias. Leadership training is equally if not more important because leaders, especially with something like school discipline, set the tone. There is a lot that can be done by federal legislation. For example, positive behavior intervention and supports—a lot of people are familiar with PBIS. There is a lot of federal money that goes to states and districts to do training to follow PBIS. Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes not so well. But there is not a corollary funding pool for something like restorative practices or other forms of teacher training. We can broaden that by using the data to evaluate what works. When educating the whole child, you need many different data points and not just test scores.
Larry: What can you say about the role of police?
Dan: The federal response to Sandy Hook was to free up 45 to 50 million dollars for school districts across the country to add either police officer or counselors. Our research shows that adding police will not make a school safer. It tends to up the ante and depersonalizes the situation. It makes the school feel closer to a prison or someplace where you are not welcome as a student, especially for student of color. Suspension rates were higher for minor offenses in schools that ranked higher on these high security measures, including metal detectors and more cops. Yet there are so many schools that have a shortage of counselors. We should entertain the idea that there should be at least a prerequisite that before you add cops you have enough counselors and mental health staff members.
The Role of Data
Larry: It is also important to acknowledge the role that data has played in the movement to create positive and supportive school discipline. It was the use of data that brought advocates, the Office of Civil Rights, your center, and the ACLU, together and brought investigations and in some cases suits against districts. That is what really got the ball rolling during these last three to four years.
Dan: It helps to both highlight some of the most egregious disparities and excesses. People are often shocked—they didn’t know that there are schools where 50 to 60 percent of all the black kids are suspended. The data also shine light on alternatives. There are plenty of schools serving kids of color and poor kids that don’t suspend kids at high rates. The data can shine the light not only on the problems but also on the solution that could be in the school next door, or in the district, or one district over. There are effective solutions but you can’t know about the problems or the solutions unless you have the baseline data.
Larry: We find that if you work with the faculty as a collaborative learning community, data can be very powerful because it can sometimes depersonalize situations in which otherwise the adults may feel blamed or accused for what is going on. But if you put the data out in front and say, “Look at this, we have a problem here, what we are going to do about it,” then we find that it can help shift from a defensive to a problem solving orientation among a whole faculty.
Dan: There are a lot of teachers who don’t know what else to do, and there are some groups of teachers that may be resistant to change. But most teachers want to be effective with kids. That is why folks go into teaching. They want do well, and they want do well by their students. You get so much more satisfaction at running a well-ordered classroom where kids are learning, kids are engaged, and where it doesn’t feel like you are exercising your authority over them but the authority comes from the community. It is a world of difference. But it takes support and training.