When Fordham spoke to American teachers

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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.


7 thoughts on “When Fordham spoke to American teachers

  1. Alex says:

    I work in a similar school in NSW. The main findings of the report are consistent with my experience. Ultimately, the legal framework we are working within seems to favour the rights of the individual over the rights of the group. The law seems to put the burden on the teacher, carer, government to do different things to cater to the child, rather than the child learning to behave in a tolerable way in a group setting through sanctions and the withdrawal of the rights offered by that society (as we deal with adults). I have further opinions, but as you would know, they can be dangerous to publish on the internet!

    I fear high-needs schools will continue to struggle to improve life outcomes for those children who need them most until we see a change. However, in the interim, while alternative settings for repeat offenders are closed down and underfunded, we will continue to pass the buck to society-at-large through ineffective interventions and consequences.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    Might I suggest that we’ll never get anywhere so long as we think in terms of ‘students of colour’? We all know that white kids can be every bit as disruptive as any others, and that non-whites can be exemplary students. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Guardian is the most racially-obsessed organ in the UK–they lose no opportuntity to dramatise ‘racist’ incidents. One wonders what they’d do without Tommy Robinson.
    Once you start discriminating–even with the best intentions in the world–you are conveying an unmistakable message: “You’re not one of us”. As teachers, we only have one duty–and that is to teach our children the essential knowledge and skills they need to participate fully in our culture, and to behave as we would wish them to behave. This is the message that comes through strongly at Michaela, and I have very little doubt but that the great majority their pupils will go on to play a positive role in their adult lives.

  3. Stephen Hurley says:

    I agree that this is a very complex issue and, having just finished reading the report, I’m more convinced that we need to engage in the types of conversations that respect the nuances. A couple of opening thoughts:

    1) I think that the US context is and, I suspect, will always be unique in the world. The socio-economic divides that have impacted all institutions in that country are significant. In terms of schooling, the fault lines dividing rich and poor are deep and very pronounced. I don’t think we can discount or gloss over the reality of the school-to-prison path.

    2) I found it very interesting to read the actual comments made by teachers. I would recommend that those relying on the executive summary to also head to the appendices for the comments.

    3) I think that the suspicion of “under-reporting” is both interesting and important. School administrators that are pressured to under-report poor behaviour in order not to draw attention to their school is concerning—for both teachers and students.

    4) I may need to read the report again, but I didn’t pick any sense that we need to deal with the larger problems of inequity to really get to the heart of the school discipline problem. I’m in no way discounting the urgency of Monday solutions, but we also need to look at the larger social realities at play here. (That would be the only reason I’m interested in knowing the source of the report.)

    My first reading contributions early on a Wednesday morning.

    I appreciate you drawing attention to the report. I look forward to further conversation.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the larger problems of inequity’. In advanced economies, vast amounts of effort and money have been expended ever since WWI in attempts to compensate for social disadvantage. As Ferdinand Mount argues in ‘Mind the Gap’, these have exacerbated the problems of the lowest social classes by putting them on ‘reservations’, better known in the UK as council estates. It takes a real act of faith to assume that we can create a more equitable society by employing yet more middle-class ‘outreach’ workers and the like. Nor is stuffing a bit of extra cash into the pockets of the unemployed likely to improve their children’s prospects.

      However, I don’t have the slightest doubt that schools are in a position to make a real difference. But this will only happen if we abandon the therapeutic approach to disruptive behaviour–I strongly recommend this article in the last issue of ResearchEd: https://researched.org.uk/time-to-let-go-the-difficulties-of-simple-conclusions-from-attachment-theory/ At the same time, we need to look closely at the schools that are having the greatest successes in turning around both behaviour and academic achievement with children from the most disadvantaged homes, such as the one I cited above. For once, Ofsted seems to be getting it right–this is exactly what they did with their report ‘Bold Beginnings’.

  4. Stephen Hurley says:

    Hi Tom, I did read that article when the mag landed on my doorstep. My comments on “larger problems of inequity” were really meant to highlight the fact that the issue of behaviour goes beyond the schoolhouse doors. Excluding kids from school which may be necessary at times doesn’t solve the behaviour issue. Standards of behaviour are necessary in schools. (As educators, we know how disruptive even one child can be.) But eliminating them from the classroom, or the system, doesn’t eliminate the child or the reasons for the behaviour/misbehaviour.

    I’m stating the obvious, I know, and I don’t think that the purpose of schools is to eliminate social inequities. The report that Greg has brought forward raises some interesting questions about how to address the reality that, in the US, behaviour issues and socio-economic status are, at the very least, co-related.

  5. Tom Burkard says:

    Although I have two research degrees in Education, the only teaching qualification I ever received was a Regimental Signals Instructor’s certificate from the Royal Corps of Transport. Essentially, there was nothing in my training that the late Zig Englemann or Barak Rosenshine wouldn’t enthusiastically endorse–and this served me very well when I started teaching basic literacy skills to SEN pupils to KS3 pupils at our local comp.

    Needless to say, many of my pupils had a long record of behavioural problems. Since many of them could barely read at all, every school day was an unrelieved vista of boredom, perhaps punctuated by the humiliation of being asked to colour in worksheets somehow related to what other kids were learning. Yet never once in three years did I have to discipline a pupil. There were two simple secrets: first, every pupil was always busy doing work at the right level–and secondly, every lesson ended with a quiz or competition. They not only loved having concrete proof of their achievement, but I always picked up on anything that needed a bit more work. Technically, what I was doing was simple–it mostly involved SRA direct instruction. The TAs that I trained continued the programme successfully long after I left.

    Illiteracy remains one of the major sources of poor behaviour–it is pretty rare to find a pupil with good literacy skills who is disruptive. But a more general problem with the profession is the obsession with teaching higher-order skills to pupils who lack the necessary bases of knowledge and skills in the relevant domains. For far too long, the profession has relied upon informal teacher assessments of pupil achievement, and these are often wildly optimistic. Even worse, the failure to use quizzes and test denies pupils the retrieval practice that they need to retain what they’ve been taught. In England more and more schools are beginning to understand that they’re wasting their time looking for problems within the child instead of within their own comfortable assumptions about supposedly ‘pupil centred’ education.

    • toby875 says:

      Tom – (asking you because your comments make complete sense to me) – I’m a parent governor concerned about literacy teaching. I have a bright Yr 5 son who behaves impeccably, picks things up quickly, is very good at sustained concentration and enjoys reading. All his teachers speak highly of him. And yet his physical writing, spelling and grammar are pretty ropey. So my conclusion is… if my son, with all these positive attributes, is at this level, what on earth is going on with other less conscientious kids? There seems to be a severe lack of testing, revisiting, or assessing whether the children are actually *recalling* anything they’re being taught.

      Could you point me in the direction of any material (books, website, blogs or whatever) that will help me understand the problems in literacy teaching & have the evidence of what actually works? I’m currently reading the Michaela book and E D Hirsch, but would like to understand more about practical, effective teaching of reading, writing, spelling, grammar. Thanks.

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