Wednesday Reading List: Discipline, Attendance, Politics, and School Improvement

Susan Dominus has a long-form piece in the New York Times Magazine, looking at the complexities of implementing restorative justice as a discipline strategy in schools. While the strategy is hard to implement, the jury seems to be back on the most popular alternative:

Originally generated in response to fears about weapons in schools, zero-tolerance policies, especially in New York, where Rudolph W. Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory had taken hold, signaled to educators that crackdowns on unruliness of all kinds were in order. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of student suspensions in New York nearly doubled, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, reaching about 450,000 suspensions over the course of the decade. In that era, infractions that once might have merited a call home, like shoving another student or cursing, were increasingly common grounds for suspension. The broad implementation of punitive suspension policies gave researchers ample data, the analysis of which has yielded a body of work suggesting the failure of this experiment in discipline. Suspensions do not deter bad behavior, numerous studies have found, and most likely feed it by alienating students from the school community. Other studies show that suspensions are not just ineffective but inequitable, as students of color are more likely than white ones to be suspended for the same behaviors.

Dominus digs deeper into the intersections of race and disciplinary policies, shining a light on specific examples of racially charged dynamics between students and teachers. It's a must read, particularly since we know that many students already spend too much time out of school, as Mikhail Zinshteyn outlines in the Atlantic:

A new analysis of federal data shows that the problem of chronic absenteeism is both widespread and concentrated. Of the more than 6 million students who are chronically absent, half attend just 4 percent of the nation’s school districts and 12 percent of the nation’s schools. Nearly nine in 10 districts report chronically absent students, based on data from the 2013-14 school year, a figure that some experts believe is an undercount. The report defines chronic absenteeism as missing at least 15 school days each year, which is roughly 10 percent of the academic calendar.

In Philadelphia, for example, more than a third of the system's 144,000 students are chronically absent. Some cities are using a multi-sector approach to curb absenteeism, but when you juxtapose these numbers with the suspension statistics, it's easy to see why so many children struggle in school. I once heard a researcher offhandedly say that schools experience their biggest bumps in achievement when they "get more butts back in the seats." Teaching is hard, but it's even harder when the kids aren't there!

In other news, Erika Sanzi wants to know why teachers are spending their first day of school organizing for a political campaign to oppose new charter schools:

Newton isn’t alone. In Walpole, teachers were forced to spend a half hour of their first day back listening to union reps talk about how important a No vote is on Question 2 (and it’s likely this happened in districts all across the Baystate.) Walpole is also an expensive town that is unlikely to ever be impacted by Question 2 because they, like Newton, are nowhere near reaching the cap. The vast majority of children and families directly impacted by the charter cap could never afford to buy a house in Walpole. Or in Newton. The level of disregard for other people’s children is truly indefensible. It’s as though the guarantee of safe quality schools that teachers and families in these towns already enjoy isn’t enough ... Oh, and did I mention that these communities are not in compliance with affordable housing mandates either?

Sanzi makes an important point about the connection between affordable housing and schooling. The ballot question in Massachusetts only applies to communities with struggling schools, so voters in the suburbs are being asked to further constrain schooling options for families that were already priced out of their communities. The union opposition to the initiative is predictable, as they have a political stake in defending the status quo, but there's no reason that the average, progressive voter has to follow suit. Many of the state's prominent democrats are supportive of the modest cap lift, and the union position doesn't always line up neatly with the political interests of vulnerable families, as they're currently fighting the major Civil Rights groups in Washington over federal funding for low-income schools.

Speaking of federal funding, a bunch of parents in New York are suing the state over grants for struggling schools. Elizabeth Harris at the New York Times has the story:

Schools are deemed to be persistently failing based on how long they have been labeled “priority” schools, a federal designation. Schools considered to be persistently failing are also eligible to receive millions of dollars over the course of two years from a $75 million pot of money, to pay for things like health clinics and social workers. When the Education Department updated its list of priority schools for the federal government this year, nine persistently failing schools no longer qualified, so they were removed from the receivership program. That might seem like a positive step, except that the Budget Division said it made the schools ineligible for a second year of grant funding.

One the one hand, good for the schools, they improved! On the other hand, it seems unwise to immediately pull funding from schools that just climbed out of the academic basement. There are some perverse incentives in the current federal rules, which I tried to change in a prior life. While we should not encourage schools to continue failing, there need to be resources for improvement, as the primary alternatives to improvement are hit-and-miss. As Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman outline in Chalkbeat, half of Memphis's recently closed schools are sitting empty:

Vance represents half of at least 21 district-run schools closed in Memphis since 2012. Most sit empty as Tennessee’s largest district prepares for a more systematic review of its school buildings and their usage. Eleven are vacant, four have been turned into alternative schools, four are now charter schools, and Graceland Elementary is the only school demolished ... Hopson said the plan for empty schools will be to “repurpose some of these buildings and to anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” When the now-empty schools initially were closed, district officials recommended selling six of them to charters. But that never came to pass. Instead, some of those, including Graves Elementary, have remained boarded up. Coro Lake Elementary, which sits in a lakefront community, is up for sale.

Nobody likes to close schools, but some optimists think that it's more promising to close weak schools and subsequently replace them with stronger ones, than trying to improve the existing schools. It's an appealing theory, but in practice, it usually ends up looking a lot more complicated. Like it does in Memphis. Have a great day!