In this second part of their wide-ranging conversation, Larry and Dan talk about the importance of professional development, support, and cultural awareness in reducing suspensions, and some of the pitfalls that can take place when those are not present.
Larry: We see a lot of districts revising their codes of conduct. One of the most significant revisions limits what out-of-school suspensions can be used for and expands expectations that teachers and other school staff deal with a greater range of behavior. In our collaborations in Syracuse and elsewhere, we work to reset adults’ expectations of what they are responsible for and what they can handle. We do worry that a lot of schools are reducing out-of-school suspensions by pulling students into in-school suspension in large rooms, sitting and not doing anything productive. You could argue that this is better than being out in the street, but it is not a lot better. How can we know whether schools that reduce out-of-school suspensions are providing greater opportunities to learn for the students who might have been suspended in the past?
Dan: We share that concern, and we have a related concern that when schools reduce out-of-school suspensions we see more referrals to law enforcement or school-based arrests. We worry that simple pressure to reduce out-of-school suspensions is really not getting at the issue. Providing teacher support in classroom management and instruction and being a more effective teacher is a really important piece of this. One of the studies in the book discusses a secondary-level teacher training program designed to address behavior, improve student-teacher engagement, and improve achievement. This study took place in a large district with a randomly controlled sample. Half the teachers got the training and half didn’t. Teachers with training improved student engagement, eliminated racial disparities, and dramatically reduced suspensions. These things go hand in hand. We worry when a district says, “Stop suspending kids in this or that category.” If there is no support or training, we will see more in-school suspensions and other ways that teachers will remove kids from the classroom, and the kids won’t be much better off as a result. At the heart of it is improving practices in the classroom so that they are more engaging and teachers are more empathetic.
Larry: In our work, we find that the school-to-prison pipeline often begins at the classroom. When a student is referred out of the classroom, it sets a much bigger process in motion. Helping teachers to address these issues in the classroom is one of the single most important things we can do. Our Engaged Classrooms approach mirrors a lot of what you are saying. It rests on a belief that you have to bring engaging teaching and learning together with an approach to classroom management and discipline that is preventative, instructional, problem-solving, and sensibly restorative. We see places around the country that focus almost entirely on good instruction, but teachers don’t know how to manage their classrooms, or vice versa. In our minds, both of those things are equally important.
Dan: Multicultural awareness is really important as well. We need to be aware that even among fairly well-managed classrooms, you might see differences in perceptions of kids based on race, or kids with disabilities, or the confluence of race and gender and race and disability. It’s important to get folks to reflect on the data about the ways that kids are removed from the classroom. Black and brown kids with disabilities are much more likely to be educated in a more restrictive setting. They are also much more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students with disabilities. Kids with disabilities in general are about twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be suspended or removed from school.