Be wary of guidelines for educational change
An effort announced a month ago by the Washington State Board of Education (SBE) seems reasonable enough, but leaves a tinge on the pallet that hints of possible poison to come. Let’s hope not.
The SBE wants to raise awareness of school discipline concerns, mainly, that some groups of students are more often at the receiving end of disciplinary action in school, and that can hurt their education in the long run.
“The data on student discipline indicates that certain student groups are being disciplined and excluded from the classroom at higher rates than other groups of students,” says SBE Chair Kristina Mayer. “We are concerned about the potential contribution of this disparity in discipline rates to the opportunity gap.”
The SBE notes, “In Washington state students of color, low-income students, and special education students are suspended and expelled at higher rates.” And they encourage school districts to collect and examine local discipline data and policies to look for concerning patterns and for practices that may need revision.
All well and good, providing districts keep their eyes on the real prize, which should not be writing fewer discipline referrals for students in the aforementioned groups.
The prize should be reducing the instances of actual offending behaviors that deserve disciplinary action.
One problem school districts — that is, teachers and principals — face is the fact that discipline problems quite often originate outside the school’s influence, but the only tools they have to work with are inside the school.
Students who come to school with problems, as a group, no doubt are suspended or expelled more often than those who come with relatively few problems originating from outside the school.
From the language in the statements made by the SBE, it’s not clear those distinctions should matter. The SBE refers to new research and guidelines issued by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice that will help guide local efforts to improve school climate.
Let’s hope that local districts, and the SBE, are wise enough to make sure they concentrate on treating causes, not symptoms, of discipline problems, and that they reject any federal money that may eventually be tied to meeting federal goals that fail to make those distinctions.
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