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Are Dropouts and Discipline Connected?

Next to the persistent achievement gap, the factor most often cited as evidence of the failure of public schools is the appalling dropout rate. It's hard to get an accurate count because many states keep two sets of books. One is designed for Washington D.C. to make themselves look good under the terms of No Child Left Behind, and the other is designed for use at home to make a case for greater support of schools from voters.

The best estimate is that 1.3 million students each year drop out of the nation's 11,000 school districts serving students at the secondary level. To put this number into perspective, overall there are 50 million students in the nation's 98,000 public schools (K-12), with dropout rates highest in the South. Half of the dropouts are found in about 12 percent of the high schools, which are overwhelmingly located in the inner cities and in rural communities.

Dropouts are costly, both in terms of themselves and the community. The likelihood of their winding up on welfare, in prison or in hospital is accompanied by the loss in wages, property, sales, and income taxes. The usual explanations for the existence of dropouts include poor relationships between students and teachers, unsafe campuses, lack of interest in the curriculum, and personal problems.

But recently, another factor was added to the list. According to testimony from three public hearings in Massachusetts, excessive discipline for non-violent offenses such as tardiness, truancy, profanity and insubordination exacerbates the dropout rate ("Act Out, Get Out? Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy). Massachusetts is of particular interest in this regard because its public schools are widely considered to be the best in the nation. Its 4th- and 8th-graders ranked first in the U.S. in math for the third consecutive year on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Its 4th- and 8th-graders also outscored most of their international peers in math and science on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study(TIMMS).

Yet despite these stellar academic results, Massachusetts reported that nearly 8,600 students out of 292,372 in grades 9 -12 dropped out of its public schools in 2009. The question is why a state that is so successful in educating so many of its students is so unsuccessful in preventing dropouts. The reason offered is that education is not a fundamental right in Massachusetts. Although children are entitled to a public education, the state courts have not interpreted this mandate to mean that suspended or expelled general education (not special education) students have a right to receive educational services during the time they are removed from school.

If this provocative explanation for the dropout rate is true, which is debatable, it has direct implications for teachers. Every time schools suspend students, they unwittingly increase the possibility that those students will eventually drop out. On the other hand, if schools don't suspend students for violating policies, they are sending a clear message that unacceptable behavior has no consequences. It's a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Schools have put themselves in this position to a large extent by adopting zero-tolerance policies to avoid the violence and disruption of the 1990s. Rigid rules have replaced professional judgment applied on a case-by-case basis. What used to be handled by a conference with parents or by detention, for example, is now too often handled by the courts. This trend is reflected in the 3.3 million suspensions recorded last year.

No matter what some theorists maintain, however, rules are an indispensable part of the educational process. As Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote in a dissent to Goss v. Lopez, the landmark due-process case in 1975, students who fail to learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped throughout life. So instead of once again swinging from one extreme to the other, schools need to reexamine how they handle this delicate problem.

One promising model exists in Clayton County, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. When juvenile court officials complained that too many cases of normal adolescent behavior were being criminalized, the district designed a three-step policy. The first offense results in a warning. The second offense requires student and parents to attend a mediation session or school conflict workshop. Only after the third offense is a court complaint filed.

Let's hope schools come to their senses. Disruptive students hold other students hostage because teachers are forced to devote inordinate time to them. But there have to be limits on disciplinary discretion as well. It's the latter that's being lost in the controversy.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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