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Is It Time For "Differentiated" Discipline Policies?


Lost in the hubbub surrounding the release and interpretation of this year's NAEP scores (yawn) is a fascinating and powerful story in the Chicago Tribune about what happens when researchers analyze another kind of performance -- suspension rates -- by race and poverty groups.

The fact that black kids --especially boys -- are disproportionately affected is vivid but not surprising. (Even though the suspension rates are double and even triple what they should be.) The fact that black middle class kids are suspended at higher rates, too, is a little more eye-opening. (Black students are no more likely to misbehave than other students from the same SES background.) And the reactions of schools with these different outcomes is perhaps the most interesting of all. (Many defend the differences because they are applying a uniform discipline standard.)

Are discipline codes being applied uniformly in schools? Does it make sense to use them if their real-world results are so skewed? What about some "differentiated" discipline to go along with all the adjustments and tailoring that is being done on the instructional side? We know that kids don't all benefit from uniform instruction. Check it out here.

It is interesting also to consider this research alongside the recently decided Jamie S vs Milwaukee Public Schools. The issue had to do with obligations of "Child Find" efforts--or screening kids for eligibility for special services based on disabilities--including mental health issues. The kids cited in the case had numerous red flags in terms of disciplinary actions, including suspension/expulsion. Had their various special needs been properly identified they would have had (some) legal protection (a limitation of 10 days removal). Instead their issues were "treated" by repeated suspension/expulsion--to the detriment of their access to (any--let alone specialized) education.

I have to say that differentiated instruction is crucial in today's classrooms. I teach in an inner city school, my students come from homes where violence is common place, and shootings on their block are not that rare. They may struggle when it comes to reading, and I differentiate their instruction to suit their needs, but my high level of expectations for them does not change with differentiation. In my opinion differentiating discipline policies is very different, it would lower my level of expectations for certain students. It's almost as if I'd be saying that student A can get away with some act that student B will not be allowed to get away with because they are from different racial backgrounds.

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