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In Discipline Debate, Two Groups Draw Different Conclusions About the Same District

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Questions about student discipline and, more specifically, the role of suspensions in schools, have been the subject of renewed debate recently.

When are suspensions appropriate? What's an appropriate replacement for classroom removal? What's the right way to rework a discipline policy? Who should make these decisions?

Two groups can even look at the same school district and draw different conclusions.

Thomas Fordham Institute released a report Tuesday examining discipline data in Philadelphia Public Schools before and after the district changed its policies to restrict the use of suspensions for more minor offenses. It found that many schools did not fully comply with the change, and that while previously suspended students saw improved attendance after the change, their test scores did not significantly improve.

The Fordham Institute's conclusion? That "top-down decrees" are "impractical and potentially harmful." Representatives from that organization have notably spoken against Obama-era guidance on school discipline, which called on schools to consider alternatives to suspensions.

But the authors of another report on discipline in Philadelphia schools say it's possible for the district to see improvements in its discipline but that "efforts to shape schools' climates and approaches to discipline can only succeed to the extent that they accommodate and adapt to the assets and challenges of particular contexts."

The district must provide support to students exposed to trauma, for school climate work like restorative practices, and for Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, a multi-tiered approach to encouraging and supporting good behavior in all students and providing special supports to students with greater needs, says the study of K-5 and K-8 Philadelphia schools released by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in November.

By exploring student data and fielding surveys and interviews of teachers and administrators, the report's authors created three categories that described the schools' approaches to discipline:

  • Reactive and autonomous schools viewed suspensions as "an important means of keeping control in the school and protecting nondisruptive students from others' misbehavior." Teachers in those schools said they had to "fend for themselves" and didn't percieve much support from administrators, the report says.
  • Under-resourced and non-cohesive schools dealt with shortages in staff and resources, low staff morale, and inconsistencies in their approaches to discipline. "Teachers report little collaboration around discipline, and feel blamed by administrators for their students' misbehavior," the report says.
  • Collaborative and relational schools were "characterized by collaborative approaches to discipline, including frequent student-teacher conferences and the use of non-punitive practices." Teachers had high morale, a sense of support from administrators, and they didn't see suspensions as an effective response to misbehavior.

Unsurprisingly, the discipline changes were more effective in the third category of schools, and students there also performed better academically. While schools in the third category where, on the whole, wealthier and more white than schools in the other two categories, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education researchers found schools in every category throughout the district. They also found schools that were attempting PBIS in all three categories.

The report recommends school leadership with clearly articulated roles related to discipline, training for teachers about "the harms of exclusion" and school climate in general, visible support staff who are trained to carry the school climate approach throughout the school, "places of respite" for students to take a break in buildings without acting up, and universal trauma training for school staff.


Related reading on school discipline:

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