The Thomas B. Fordham Institute have released a new report where they have done something truly extraordinary – they have spoken to actual teachers about what they think of classroom discipline. Fordham is considered a conservative thinktank and so, if you are in the habit of dismissing evidence on the basis of where it comes from, you should stop reading now and disappear back down your rabbit hole. However, if you take a more considered view then it is worth reading on.
As it is an American thinktank, Fordham spoke to U.S. teachers and there is come interesting context around that. In recent years there have been centrally mandated moves to reduce school suspensions and exclusions, and American school systems have responded by attempting to make teaching more ‘engaging’ and implementing approaches such as restorative practices. These moves are based, in part, upon the fact that those who Americans would describe as ‘students of color’ are over-represented in the suspension and exclusion figures. In the foreword to the Fordham report, Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli explain their own reaction to these moves based on their experience of education reform:
“…we surmised that on the ground (in real schools) teachers would simply be told that students couldn’t be disciplined like they used to be—and that they’d be on their own when it came to dealing with the consequences. Contrary to the assumptions of many reformers, that might be bad for the disruptive students themselves, and it would almost certainly be bad for their well-behaved peers, their teachers, and the larger goal of helping students learn.”
I would urge all those who are currently calling for top-down mandates to reduce suspensions and exclusions in Australia to explain how they will prevent this happening. Why? Well, the effects in the U.S. suggest that Northern and Petrilli are on to something.
Fordham joined up with RAND to conduct a survey of teachers in the autumn of 2018. Due to the possibility that racial bias sits behind the over-representation of students of color in suspensions and exclusions, they decided to oversample African American teachers in order to fully capture their perspective. This is what the teachers reported:
Firstly, discipline is an equity issue. High-poverty schools face much higher rates of verbal abuse and fighting and teachers report that a disorderly and unsafe environment makes it hard for students to learn. School discipline is inadequate and a decline in suspensions has largely been achieved by a higher tolerance for poor behaviour. Teachers are keen to apply new approaches such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (that I have mentioned a few times on this blog e.g. here) but they agree that schools still need the ability to suspend some students. Most teachers say the majority of students suffer due to the behaviour of a few and that a mainstream setting is not always best for some students.
Probably the most nuanced finding comes from the views of African American teachers and it is worth quoting the report in full:
“Compared to their white peers, African American teachers are somewhat more likely to worry that suspensions increase students’ odds of criminal justice involvement, and they are far more likely to believe there is racial bias in how school discipline policy is carried out. Yet, despite these concerns, many African American teachers (including half of those in high-poverty schools) say that out-of-school suspensions, as well as longer-term options such as expulsions and Alternative Learning Centers (ALCs), should be used more often.” [References to figures removed]
This demonstrates the complexity of the issue. Yes, African American teachers seem to be saying, there is bias in the system, but we still need to be able to suspend students. Top-down approaches such as targets for reducing suspensions and exclusions, do not reflect this complexity.
There is much to commend in this report, not least that it seeks the opinions of the experts on the ground. Nobody involved in education wants to see students excluded from school. However, when you ask teachers who actually work in these environments about their views, you start to see the flaws in simplistic answers.