School Discipline: Pay Attention to Well-Behaving Students and Misbehaving Peers

School Discipline: Pay Attention to Well-Behaving Students and Misbehaving Peers

School discipline might be the hardest education issue to find common ground, writes Michael J. Petrilli in Education Next.

“That shouldn’t be surprising, given how divisive our country’s debate has been on the related issue of criminal justice and law enforcement,” says Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“So how can we try to bridge these ideological divides? Here are my three rules:

  1. When aiming for equity, we should level up instead of leveling down.
  2. We should focus on closing gaps between affluent students and their disadvantaged peers, not between high-achieving students and their lower-achieving peers.
  3. We should focus equity initiatives primarily on class, not race.

“The first rule rarely gets discussed as part of the school discipline debate. That’s because most arguments are about how adults should respond to student misbehavior. Should teachers send kids to the principal’s office? Should principals suspend kids, and for which kinds of infractions? Should school-board policy ever include expulsions, and what safeguards should be in place? How to make all of this less racially biased?

“The first goal of any student discipline policy should be to help students behave better—to “level up.” We should reject low expectations when it comes to students’ comportment in classrooms, hallways, and the cafeteria, just as we reject it when it comes to our beliefs around what “certain kids” can learn.

“We should avoid at all costs, then, any policies that indicate to kids that they can get away with bad behavior. We should focus instead on helping students meet high behavioral standards.

“This means modeling good behavior for students; holding them accountable for infractions; working proactively with families when there are bigger issues; and supporting teachers when they try to hold the line.

“Rule number two means paying just as much attention to well-behaving students as to their misbehaving peers. That’s one of the purposes of office referrals and suspensions—to ‘put out’ the misbehaving kids so that their peers can return to learning (or, in the context of hallways and lunchrooms, to feeling safe.

“Even discipline hawks must admit that suspending or expelling students from school is extremely problematic. These practices have troubling consequences for the students subjected to them, even after controlling for underlying factors that might have contributed to students’ misbehavior in the first place. Many misbehaving kids come from broken homes and/or dangerous communities. Making them spend days or months on the streets, away from opportunities to learn, is hardly going to do them any favors.

“We need well-designed interventions for misbehaving students—especially chronic and violent offenders—that help them learn to improve their behavior, keep them learning academically, and protect their peers from further disruption along the way. Schools and districts are experimenting with various approaches: rule violation points; turning libraries into discipline centers; and kicking kids out of class and into online classes until behavior challenges are identified and mitigated.

“Rule three focuses primarily on students’ socioeconomic status instead of race,” says Petrilli.

 A study by Brown University found a strong relationship between race, poverty status, and rates of exclusionary discipline. Black students are suspended at approximately twice the rate of white students. Poor students, defined as those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) in every year observed, are suspended at approximately twice the rate of non-poor students who never qualify for FRPL.

“To conclude, here’s how we might find common ground around this most vexing issue:

  1. Put real effort and resources into helping students meet high behavioral expectations.
  2. Develop alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions that address the needs of chronically or violently misbehaving students, while protecting the sanctity of the classroom for their teachers and peers.
  3. When working to root out racial bias in exclusionary discipline, control for differences in student misbehavior, or, if that proves impossible, at least control for students’ socioeconomic status.”


Education Next


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