“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Excerpt from “I Have a Dream,” speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963, Washington, D.C.
More than 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this dream, children’s academic and social success in U.S. public schools continues to depend, unfortunately, too much on the color of their skin. Compared to white students, African-American, Latino, and Native American students tend to achieve lower grades in key subject areas like reading and math, are disciplined more often and more severely, and graduate at lower rates. At the same time, black, Latino, and Native American youth are more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system. These disparities have existed for decades, and—especially in the area of disciplinary exclusions—have increased since the 1970s (see this report from The Civil Rights Project).
School discipline policies and school and classroom climates have become the new front lines in the ongoing effort to reverse this trend. In January of 2014, the Department of Education in conjunction with the Department of Justice published Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. This document recommends two action steps towards achieving greater equity in student outcomes:
1) STAFF TRAINING: All school staff members need to be trained to apply school discipline policies equitably to all students.
2) DATA COLLECTION: Schools should collect data from families, students, and school personnel to make informed decisions about how to prevent and reduce identified discriminatory practices.
Regarding the first goal, training school staff to discipline all students equitably will be quite a challenge. On the one hand, there are many approaches to discipline that focus on generic behavior support strategies (e.g., defining behavioral expectations and providing lots of positive reinforcement to students who follow them) and that emphasize that these strategies need to be applied to all students. Unfortunately, few of these approaches provide teachers with any type of tool that would allow them to check if they indeed apply discipline equitably across all students. Equitable discipline remains a good intention with very little actual implementation.
On the other hand, there are trainings that focus specifically on equity, e.g. “sensitivity” or “cultural awareness” trainings. Some of them are quite spendy, are supported by little evidence, and can even create a backlash effect, meaning that teachers who participate in the training—often because they are mandated to do so by their principal or superintendent—become less willing to engage with how equity and discrimination inform their classroom practices.
Regarding the second goal of data collection, most of the data that is currently collected consists of disciplinary referrals, suspensions, or expulsions. These disciplinary actions are usually the end result of a long chain of events that could involve many players (teachers, students, administrators, parents). The data that is commonly available to teachers, researchers and policy makers tell us little about what happens along this chain of events, such as: What did the student do or not do? Why did she do or not do it? What was she thinking? Who saw her doing or not doing it and wrote the referral? What was the teacher thinking at the moment he or she wrote the referral? Why did an administrator decide on suspension? Who else was consulted? The parents? Was there consensus? Did the student have a chance to tell her side of the story? We rarely know the answers to all of the questions, and therefore, the data is incomplete.
Collecting information from all people involved (students, parents, and teachers) on their perceptions of the classroom and school climate would give us a more nuanced perspective about how inequities can happen, despite the best intentions of those involved. Many schools already ask students to complete climate surveys. However, I wonder if schools are using the survey data systematically?
Students are a good source of information. Knowing if students perceive their school environment as fair, if they feel they can trust their teachers, if they feel they have positive relationships with their peers, and if they feel they belong to and are valued by their school community would be extremely helpful. If we give students a voice and listen to what they have to say, we might learn a great deal about what we need to change to make all students feel respected and cared for. Students who feel respected and cared for are less likely to get into trouble. The second action step recommended in the Guiding Principles encourages schools to collect this critical information.
Implementing the two action steps proposed in the Guiding Principles would move schools towards equal treatment of all students. Imagine if we could:
1) Develop a protocol for analyzing discipline outcome data in the context of student perceptions of their school climate, and then…
2) Train teachers and school-wide behavior support teams to use this protocol.
3) Have discussions of inequalities in disciplinary outcomes. This could be a starting point for modifying specific practices that impact how students perceive their school climate.
4) We could then focus on well-defined areas, such as teacher-student relationships, rule-making, or peer relationships that we can specifically work to improve… So that all children, regardless of the color of their skin, can succeed.