Apr 29, 2012

Special Education, Suspension, Criminalization of School, Dropout Rates, and Race

Image Credit/Flickr: soonerpa 

My brain has been abuzz with all kinds of things. Although I do not know the specific details of  my new job, I know a lot about the theoretical backing for programs like the one I'm going to work in. Here are the facts:

  • African-American students nationwide are labeled as having emotional/behavior disorders and/or learning disabilities and placed in special education programs more often than white students--even though the schools doing that labeling have fewer black students than white students. This is called disproportionate minority representation in Special Education.  (See this book and this study for specifics, or just Google the phrase "disproportionate African Americans in special education" to get over a million results.)
  • African-American students, specifically black males, are punished more often than white students--even in schools where there are fewer black students than white students.  This is called the disproportionate discipline of African-American students. The punishments often take the form of out-of-school suspensions or involve police. Out-of-school suspensions lead to students falling behind in schoolwork, increasing the achievement gap. Police involvement leads to the criminalization of school behavior, and more kids entering the juvenile justice system. (See this article with stats for the 20 biggest school districts in the nation, and this page with links to civil rights studies.)
  • The system of zero-tolerance for behavioral issues that is in place in many schools often calls for police involvement in schools. This is the criminalization of school behavior. When we allow behavior in school to be criminalized, we send children into the juvenile justice system. Once a child is in the system, it is extremely difficult for them to get out. This is called the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Since disproportionate numbers of African-American students are facing disciplinary action in schools, it follows that disproportionate numbers of African-American students are entering this pipeline, moving directly from school to prison. (Read the ACLU's fact sheet here and find a book from the Civil Rights Project here.)
  • High School Dropout Rates are terrible, especially among poor and minority students. Our nation's dropout rate in 2009 was 8.1%. The dropout rate for white students was 5.2%. For Black students it was 9.3% and for Hispanic students it was 17.6%--again, this is a disproportionate number of students of color. (See the National Center for Education Statistics fact sheet here.)
It all seems so dismal. Unsurmountable obstacles to face, especially when most school teachers and administrators nation-wide are white (Find information about the U.S. Department of Education's plan to increase teacher diversity here.) Without the experience of knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end of racially-motivated stereotypes and prejudices or having your own child face such injustices, it is hard for many white people to understand the enormity of these problems. Schools try to alleviate the problems by offering diversity training for teachers (this is now a huge industry in education, with workshops available every year--particularly around Martin Luther King Day.) But is offering diversity workshops to white teachers enough? 

I don't think so.

For me, the thing that irritates me most about education reform is the trickle down theory: if we focus on the administrators and teachers, things will get better for kids. Reformers all seem to start at the top, and then hope that changes eventually make their way to the kids. That trickle-down approach means that things take years to improve for kids. Districts have to search for the proper teacher training materials, schedule the workshops at least a year in advance to get school board approval, and then they have to assume that all teachers will buy-in to the training. Once the in-service or training occurs, teachers have to find value in the material presented in order to start the process of change. And if they find value, then they have to take things one step further and actually apply their learning to their classrooms. If we're honest about things, that doesn't happen very often. Teachers are stuck in the day-to-day, one minute at a time, running of their classrooms. It takes a lot of determination to step back from the minutiae of day-to-day classroom operations so that we can alter the way we do things. One student's behavior, or a group of students' resistance to something new, and the lack of time to properly plan things, makes it difficult to change.

Instead of focusing on teacher diversity training, I think we should be focusing on changing things immediately and drastically for students. Develop plans for students first, and then make sure teachers adjust. Grassroots education change is what will make things better for kids the fastest.

How do we do that?

Start with the kid.  When a behavior occurs, do not call the police. Talk to the kid. When a problem arises, do not instantly suspend a child---talk to him. Teach him. If behavioral expectations aren't being met, consider the fact that perhaps no one has ever specifically taught the kid to meet those expectations. We need to explicitly and directly teach kids how to interact; we can't just assume that they know better. We can't keep punishing kids for doing things they don't necessarily know are wrong. We are educators. We need to teach kids, not kick them out. We need to give students the skills to succeed in school, on the job, and in life by teaching them. That is the only way to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, to end the disproportionate suspensions/labels/dropouts and get kids connected to mainstream society. Research shows that if we can get kids connected to someone/something positive by age 25, their chances of being successful in life improve astronomically. Instead of planning new in-services to teach multicultural communication skills, let's plan a program to directly connect kids to a teacher or community member who can explicitly teach skills that will help them be successful.

And so...that's what's been on my brain lately.  I am finishing out this year in my little alternative education classroom and doing the things we've always done to finish the year, but I am also receiving contact from people in the job I've accepted for next year. I am excited to learn more about what that job entails because it really does seem like a vortex of swirling "rightness" is around me--this job is right for me... I feel it. I don't know what the day-to-day nitty gritty of the new job will bring, and I can't really know until I get there. Obviously, there will be many day-to day changes, including these:
  • 10 minute commute instead of 40+ minute commute
  • 100 teachers in the building instead of just 1 (me)
  • 1,400 students instead of 20-30
The level of student diversity will also be much different. The high school I am moving to is not as diverse as the elementary school my own children attend (that is 56% non-white), but at 30% non-white it is still more diverse than where I currently work--which is all white.

As I've said, I don't know the nitty-gritty daily-grind details of what my new job entails. But it is directly related to all of the above and involves intervening, problem-solving, and directly teaching kids. I am looking forward to being a part of a program that focuses on students, hoping that what they're taught raises them up without having to wait for change to trickle down.


  1. The statistics are so frustrating to read, and yet at least it points out the problem, which shows us that there IS something that needs to be fixed. These dynamics surely play a role in fueling the disproportionate minority representation seen in the juvenile justice & criminal justice systems, too.

    Your new school is so lucky to have you. In the end, change is going to come down to individuals who feel passionate about these issues and push for change on a program/policy level while also leading with their own behavior.

  2. Thank you for being so supportive! I believe that actions speak louder than words, and while I've been diligently writing about these issues to get the word out, I really look forward to DOING something positive in my own little corner of the world. I hope it spreads. Start by helping one kid change things and go from there...maybe, eventually, we'll see system-wide change!

  3. Congrats on the new job! It's late and I don't have anything really worthwhile to say, except that reading this makes me have hope that people inside the system see the systemic problems and perhaps maybe it can change. It is frustrating to read those statistics, but it's also hopeful that at least they are being acknowledged somewhere, by somebody.

  4. Thanks, Martha! There are people, places, and schools trying to change things. The media only pays attention to the failures, though. Things are moving and shaking on the inside, all over the country. But change is so slow in coming....so very, very slow...

  5. First, I am so happy and excited for your new opportunity. You will flourish, my friend. I don't think I've ever met anybody as knowledgeable and experienced who can articulate the challenges our kids face in schools, as you. Second, I read this and feel my blood pressure go up after every line. The educators are one thing, how about the school guidance counselors who are in place as a safety net for these children? Often the ratio is greater than 300-400:1 in districts with minimal funding. So rather than be proactive and stop problems before they become crisis situations, they're putting out fires. There are few opportunities to "get-to-know" their students and make in-person contact. 

  6. Congrats on your new job.  They are extremely lucky to have you!

  7. Your stats about guidance counselors are very alarming, but realistic. In my experience, those stats on counselors per student are totally accurate. Everything about our education system is set up to be reactionary instead of proactive. One counselor per school to pick up the pieces after things go wrong. Punishment for kids after life has given them lemons and they don't respond well. Alternative placements after they've failed so miserably they can't catch up. I'd love to see a shift to prevention--provide multiple counselors in each school to help BEFORE kids suffer too much. There is a counseling model out there that is pretty new and talks about how to set up a system of prevention services--the work of Beth Doll and Jack Cummings is cutting edge! I wrote a paper on their studies last year and their vision has stuck with me, and inspired me so much to change my perspective. You should check them out, Ezzy! Their work helped me decide to take the new job--I don't want to keep picking up the pieces of broken kids who've suffered so much that they get sent to alternative school. I want to be in the traditional school preventing them from becoming so broken. It's an awesome vision for the future of counseling: population-based mental health services in schools.


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