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Where Children, Data, and Equity Meet

September 16, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

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.

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  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    September 22, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Underlying the disparities of academic achievement in regard to blacks, we must pay attention to the underlying culture of home and community that immerse so many of these families in a perverse poverty of cultural communication that produces constant stress that begins before birth.  Poverty is much more than economic stress;  many people live in poverty, but a constant immersive culture of verbal abuse, threat, intimidation, name-calling, taunting, physical abuse, reactive responding, and competition from birth on puts the personal biochemical homeostasis in a state of constant threat that we call stress.  Observing the interactions and effects of the most stressed subgroup on the climate for the entire class or local community is alarming.  Whenever anyone of any race enters into this maelstrom of misery the results are the same.  To recondition (in the sense of classical reconditioning and behavior modification) the autonomic nervous system through a shift in homeostasis (constant expectation) from negative adrenal stress to the positive acetylcholine happy and joyful experience we want for all children, we must look as far back as the prenatal emotional state of the mother.  Consistent and constant positive experiences of being safe, secure, friendly, loving, helping, cooperating, succeeding, caring, and productive create the internal state for relating to others through positive expectations in dealing with others.  Trying to achieve in school while trapped in a constant and stressful defensive fear state just leads to more stress and failure.  The chaos begins early so parent training is key.  Addressing the issue directly is necessary in order to change this culture;  stress restricts brain development and joy enhances brain development.  Let’s be blunt about braining the brain with cultural stress.  Give the teachers a chance to teach without having to deal with these damaging cultural effects.  We need some attention-grabbing slogans to confront this issue (can I say “head on?”).  Begin with young mothers and create a culture of consistent brain nurture.  It is time to “Brain Up!”

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      September 22, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Dr. Palmer,

      Thank you for the summary of the effects of stress on development. However, I am disturbed by linking those effects specifically to African-Americans and African-American culture. It’s hurtful and offensive. We should be able to discuss stress and parenting without blaming or shaming anyone based on race.

      • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

        September 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

        I am sorry that you read my comments in the context of shame.  My commitment is to enhance brain development, especially among children who are at risk, whoever they are.  This issue is not restricted to one race and we can find examples in all communities and races.  Since the overarching topic is the achievement gap, we are forced to recognize that a sizable subset of black students live in an impoverished emotional climate that is best described as extremely intense and abusive sibling rivalry.  In my experience working with such students the competition for attention, access and resources produces heightened vigilance and oversensitivity to possible insult and disrespect that demands reprisal.  Perhaps my language here is uncomfortably strong, but the point to be made is that the climate under which these students labor must be addressed.  Children have a fundamental right, in my opinion, to be happy, to experience joy, and to be hopeful about their future through productive competence.  This subgroup has a profound influence on the entire school environment so the problem affects everyone.  Some communities that are not black can have the same problem with a similar subgroup, but academically in the twin cities, we are discussing an achievement gap that demands an expansion of analysis and action for effectiveness in assisting parents in creating the consistent quality nurturing required for avoiding constricted brain development and for nourishing brain enhancement.  Identifying the problem is a first step.  This problem is subtle and more attention is usually given to extreme examples of outright physical abuse. Parents in this cultural niche need training and continuous engagement.  The parents who need the help the most usually do not attend or are unaware of the many resources for child nurture that are available in Minnesota.  Parents need awareness and training for enhancing the home environment and the differences between children with and without the typical stress.  Please observe how students interact with each other and with parents;  the needs become obvious and compelling.  Noticing and changing the culture begins with the parents but parents cannot do the job alone.  This subgroup needs the entire village to insist on and to develop respectful and caring interaction.  A certain level of civil discourse is required in order to replace the stress of threat with a spirit of cooperation and appreciation.  If the twin cities community can change this subgroup culture then other communities will use us as a model.  These children require a great deal of guidance and reward as progress is made.  Being able to concentrate on studies rather than being ready to react to threat provides the possibility of retention of content and recall for demonstration of learning.  Being in need is not shameful, but denying or ignoring the problem certainly is.