Thursday, July 21, 2011

What ARE We Doing to Our Children?!

A recently released study by the Council of State Governments revealed something that many of us have known anecdotally, if not empirically: zero tolerance in our public schools is doing nothing to enhance academic performance. 

One million students from the 7-12 grade were followed for 6 years. Researchers in the study found that schools that zero-tolerance in schools either suspending or expelling students at high rates for rules infractions, "...did no better on test scores, graduation rates and other performance measures than other schools with similar student bodies."

While the fact that 60% of the middle and high school students studied were subject to suspended or expelled at some point, it is more revealing that African-Americans were far more likely to receive such discipline more than their Hispanic or white counterparts. The study showed that 75% of black students were subjected to such disciplinary action, compared to 65% of Hispanics and 47% of white students. 

Gary Bledsoe, President of the Texas NAACP said, “Kids know that zero tolerance usually means zero tolerance for one group,” Bledsoe said. “It’s not a matter of whether but when.”

"The problem has been well-documented, and the bias it points to has not been addressed by the state or local schools, Bledsoe said."
But there's an even deeper problem, "The new study showed that of the 929,000 students followed, 553,000 were disciplined. The average had more than four disciplinary actions over their high school careers, for a cumulative 4.9 million infractions"
"Of those, 92 percent involved violations of schools’ codes of conduct, under which they have discretion over the severity of punishment for different types of misbehavior. Their responses have varied widely, even within school districts."
"Less than 3 percent of the infractions were for major incidents that triggered mandatory expulsion under state law."
"Researchers followed students, finding that the more a student was disciplined, the more likely that student was to end up in the juvenile justice system. And of all the students who were disciplined, 31 percent had to repeat a grade at least once."

And further, "Debbie Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman, said the finding that 60 percent of students were disciplined may lead people to the “wrong conclusion” about the nature of problems in Texas schools."
"“That figure not only includes expulsion or suspension for serious crimes, but it also includes in-school suspensions for violations of the student code of conduct. That can be anything from a violation of the dress code — like wearing flip-flops — to excessive tardiness...” 
Something is wrong here...very wrong. 
Of course children who are violent and others who have significant behavioral issues, will probably more often than not, have to be dealt with in ways that allow teachers to do their jobs. 
But if the goal is to get all children who pose any type of problem out of the way so that teachers only have to deal with the 'easy' students. Then we have a serious problem. 
Also, if we've gotten to the point, and some professionals believe we have, where we are criminalizing what is essentially adolescent behavior, then we're exacerbating the problem even more. It means at earlier, and earlier ages we are introducing kids to the criminal justice system. Or as Republican Texas Representative Jerry Madden says, “I’m convinced that the things we did as kids years ago and seen as being a teenager are things now they’re getting disciplined for.”
Public education involves socialization. Socialization doesn't just deal with how children learn together, work together or play together, it also has to do with teaching them how to be accountable to authority and to a group. That doesn't, nor can it mean, a trip to a juvenile detention facility because two boys get into a fist fight. 
Are there extreme behaviors that call for discipline - you bet. Our children are not impervious to the worst influences of their environment or the culture at large. But the answer has to be more than teaching them that the consequence to every wrong is expulsion, suspension or incarceration. 
The ineffectiveness of zero tolerance policies is not just the finding of the Council of State Governments. Another study released by Child Trends states, "Even as the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies is being questioned, educational research has found a strong link between the types of punishment associated with these policies—suspension and expulsion—and a host of negative outcomes. Being suspended from school significantly increases the likelihood of subsequent suspension or expulsion.40 Students who receive a suspension in middle or high school are also significantly less likely to graduate on time and are more likely to drop out.3 Higher suspension rates have also been found to be related to lower school-wide academic achievement and standardized test scores, even when controlling for factors such as race and socioeconomic status."
"Psychological and educational research have examined the connection between punishment under zero tolerance policies and negative outcomes. Psychological research has suggested that suspension and expulsion are likely to further reinforce negative behavior by denying students opportunities for positive socialization in school and nurturing a distrust of adults, both of which inhibit adolescent development."
"Educational research has suggested that school discipline policies are related to student engagement. Students who trust their teachers, and feel that their teachers are respectful, fair, and attentive, are more likely to form bonds with and perform well in school. By restricting the ability of school staff to put student actions into context in some cases, zero tolerance policies can inhibit the formation of school bonds..."

The job of a classroom teacher is not easy. Unfortunately the Texas Legislature made it more difficult in the session that just ended. With fewer resources, larger classes and pressure on teachers and principals to meet test score objectives, the guarantee is that these trends will probably not end anytime soon. 
It's one thing to not give good teachers a chance to do their jobs. It's another to hold children and youth accountable for academic excellence when we keep putting the majority of them out of the classroom. It doesn't take a Ph. D. to know that they can't learn if they aren't there...

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