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John Thompson: Let's Look Before Leaping to Ban Suspensions

Guest post by John Thompson.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Why Some Schools Want to Expel Suspensions, reported that Los Angeles schools banned suspensions for "willful defiance of authority." He then left the impression that a single suspension often sets poor children of color down the path to educational failure. Goodwyn asked Daniel Losen of the UCLA Civil Rights Project whether such a suspension could lead to a student dropping out. Losen replied that it is "associated" with a doubled risk of dropping out.

Then, Goodwyn reported on a LAUSD school, Garfield H.S, that supposedly showed that better policies can be cost-free. It turns out that it has a wellness center and scores of community volunteers for addressing misbehavior.

In fact, the Civil Rights Project commissioned research by Johns Hopkins' Robert Balfanz which explains that a single suspension can be a trigger and why it should be seen as a warning sign to be investigated. It makes a case for solutions that are costly and complex, even though they would save money in the long run.

Yes, a suspension for willful defiance of authority can be "associated" with a doubling of the risk of dropping out. But, mostly, such a statistic reverses the cause and the effect. It is the prison pipeline that has grown dramatically since the deindustrialization of our economy that has helped undermine schools. It is the breakdown of the family, as well as growing concentrations of poverty, that robbed poor children of adult role models.

I predict that the success of non-punitive discipline will often be determined by a bitter and ubiquitous dispute between those who believe that suspensions cause educational failure, and those who see correlations between suspensions and dropping out. District and school leaders, who read the Civil Rights Project's data as proof of suspensions driving troubled kids out of school, will demand that the numbers of those actions be reduced, regardless of whether effective alternatives are in place. When educators complain that behavioral standards are being lowered as they are supposed to be teaching at higher levels, the certainty of the "teacher quality" crowd who blame our "low expectations" will grow.

Those who see the Project's data as evidence of a correlation between suspensions and educational failure do not need to refight the blame game, however. Regardless of whether the primary problems are students bringing to school the legacies of generations of oppression or the ineffectiveness of schools, there is more than enough blame to go around.

The Losen's and the Project's quest for solutions draws upon some of the best social science in the world. It is carefully drafted by scholars from the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the American Institutes of Research, and others.

The association they document between the current disciplinary systems and dropping out is not adequate for indicting poor instruction or identifiable in-school factors as the prime villains. But, it provides more than enough evidence on the links between suspensions and educational underperformance to drive a search for solutions.

The LAUSD, on the other hand, already has its plate full. Counselors and principals are already overloaded. They and teachers must deal with tough new Common Core standards and value-added accountability. Both require teachers to ratchet up the rigor of their instruction. Now, they will lose a previously essential tool for curtailing classroom disruptions. Teachers can only hope that the district finds the time and money to quickly devise alternatives.

What happens if the district does not implement a workable replacement to the admittedly flawed system of suspensions? If a teacher fails to meet his test score growth target because his school fails to seriously address classroom disruptions, will Superintendent John Deasy say "My bad!," and say we need to shift more resources from command and control to a collaborative system of supports?

Perhaps this is naïve, but isn't it time to stop issuing one risky mandate after another on schools that are already overburdened? Couldn't we agree to a phased implementation of socio-emotional supports and programs such Restorative Justice before banning defiance of authority suspensions? Wouldn't it be smarter to phase out suspensions for nonviolent offences, as schools find the time and money to implement in-school alternatives?

What do you think?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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