Where Children, Data, and Equity Meet
It’s not hard to agree that young children shouldn’t face suspension or expulsion except in the most extreme circumstances. Beth Hawkins of MinnPost has provided in-depth coverage of the recent efforts in Minneapolis to address that problem by modifying their rules to make it difficult-to-impossible to send kindergarteners and first graders out of school for misbehavior. It’s the latest in a cluster of recent efforts in different Minnesota districts to address a real problem of equity in our schools.
Specifically, the changes in Minneapolis are a reaction to the stark and prolonged racial disparities in school discipline. African-American and American Indian students have faced suspension rates that are several times higher than white and Asian students, with Latino students suspended at a rate somewhat higher than white and Asian students. These gaps are one local reflection of a countrywide trend with real ramifications for students’ experiences of school.
Looking underneath the data to analyze the underlying causes is more complicated. Oftentimes, one factor is school or district discipline policies, and in particular their definitions of grounds for suspension or expulsion. Vague or ambiguous language like “willful defiance” opens the door for unconscious or implicit biases to affect which students receive different levels of consequence. Schools that have eliminated such language as part of a broader effort to change discipline practice have seen dramatic reductions in suspensions and expulsions.
Another factor is how well school staff can identify and adapt to family and home conditions that can affect student behavior. For example, my report “Local Lessons: Five Case Studies in Community-Driven Education Reform” discussed the partnership between Rochester teachers and the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Project to help teachers recognize and respond to the effects on children of having a family member deployed in the military. Even students in the youngest grades can find themselves facing expulsion when their family needs are going unaddressed. Students across Minnesota face a wide range of challenges, and ensuring that school staff in many roles are equipped to help them address those obstacles can help moderate the underlying causes of misbehavior.
Of course, the more services schools can offer in addressing those needs, the better positioned they are to support students and reduce misbehavior. Many districts found themselves laying off guidance counselors and social workers in response to Pawlenty-era budgets, for example, and helping them rebuild those positions should be a priority.
Returning to the role of discipline policies themselves in contributing to or reducing racial disparities, rewriting those policies should be accompanied by incorporating teachers, support staff, and other school personnel in the process of creating an explicitly anti-racist school climate. While clearing up ambiguous language makes it more difficult for implicit biases to produce disparities in punishments, reframing the whole educational environment to acknowledge and attempt to counteract racism can help people actively resist those biases.
Moving towards a restorative justice framework is a related way of helping adults and students alike rethink the purposes and assumptions of school discipline. Exchanging the law enforcement model for one that guides students through an understanding of harm and reconciliation transforms the entire structure of misbehavior and discipline from one based on confrontation to one based on collaboration and learning.
Running through all of these ideas and recommendations is the lesson learned from years of pounding heads against walls in the pursuit of higher test scores. That lesson: Work on fixing the problem, not the data. Unless the causal factors are addressed, any surface-level shifts in the data are likely to be temporary, deceptive, or both. This is why blanket bans on suspensions unaccompanied by any other changes don’t tend to work out well.
Pursuing educational equity requires us to constantly re-anchor ourselves in the search for causes and effects. It is not enough to simply make bad numbers go away. The numbers themselves aren’t the problem, and when we chase them as if they are, we risk making major mistakes (like narrowing curriculum and cutting important opportunities for students). Instead, the numbers are one reflection of many different factors intersecting in a variety of ways at different levels of the system. Schools can’t “fix” all of those factors, but if they are to become more equitable, they must be able to name them and change practice appropriately.