JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. Maybe teachers and school principals already have seen this going on, but now we have data that points to a disturbing reality in our public schools. In a recently released survey of tens of thousands of American schools, African-American students accounted for just one in five students, but they also accounted for more than one in three of the students to be expelled.
This at least was true during the 2009 and 2010 school year of the survey, which also shed light on a number of other discipline methods and found the numbers off-balance also for Latino students, for boys in general and for students with disabilities.
Though the causes of these disparities are not always clear, many are concerned about the consequences, thinking that the opportunity gap is widening in the American education system because a lot of these kids, once they are expelled, are at risk of being gone from school for good.
Teachers and administrators, we want to ask you: What are the consequences of these disparities in discipline? And what needs to change to address the problem? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later on in the program, we'll be looking at the science behind why some songs just seem to get stuck in your head. But first, Russlynn Ali joins us now from our bureau in New York. She is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. Russlynn Ali, welcome to the program.
RUSSLYNN ALI: Hello, thank you.
DONVAN: So you have said that this data paints a very disturbing picture, and I didn't go into great detail about the numbers. So what do the numbers show us?
ALI: Well, the civil rights data collection and the data that we released last week tells us, as you just mentioned, really about the opportunities that students have in our schools to succeed. It goes in deeply into discipline rates, as you mentioned, things like whether students were suspended once or more than once, whether they were referred to law enforcement, whether they had an in-school or an out-of-school suspension, whether they were arrested in school.
But a lot more, it tells us about who gets access to what courses as we gear up to be ready for college and career upon graduation. It tells us about where guidance counselors are. It tells us about where money flows, where our teachers teach. It really is the first of its kind opportunity gap analysis, what we know matters most in public education.
The question for us in all of these data is: Are we providing those resources fairly?
DONVAN: And I realize that it paints a very broad picture by looking at a range of these issues, but I want to focus you back on the question of the discipline in just a moment. But before we do that, tell me about this data collection process. It's been going on for decades, has it not?
ALI: Yes, in fact since 1968. Every two years, the Office for Civil Rights collected data equity indicators, things like graduation rates. For a long time, it was the only place you could go see those kinds of data. Under the Obama-Duncan administration, however, we have transformed the Civil Rights Data Collection, adding hundreds of indicators, disaggregating the data further, fixing lots of methodological problems to truly understand what's behind the achievement gap that hobbles so many of America's young people.
DONVAN: And we have a few years in which we had no data, is that correct? No data was gathered?
ALI: The data is gathered every two years. The last collection was in 2006. In 2008, in part because of the concurring resolution, we didn't have a budget to do the collection, and as we spoke with school officials across the country upon the privilege of me serving in this administration, they said it's a little too late for us, this late in the school year. You're talking April and May of 2010, that it was too late to do the collection for the '08 data, which would have been collected in the '09 school year.
So we took the opportunity to transform the collection, pushed it back just one year, ensured we had the proper resources and support to school districts to get it done and released the data just last week.
DONVAN: So, I mean, the question that all of this leaves hanging out there in terms of the discipline issue - especially when we say discipline - we're talking about suspensions and expulsions, which can have cataclysmic consequences on the kids to which this happens, is: why is it happening? And, you know, there are a lot of ways to think about why it's possibly happening. And one of them would be, you know, if we put this just simply in terms of boys, if it turns out that boys are expelled more than girls, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that boys are behaving in more expellable ways than girls. I don't know what the data is on that. I'm only using that as a sort of cultural reference point, that most of us would think that probably that's true.
In terms of African-American students and more so boys than girls, having these really disproportionately high rates of expulsion, is there a perception either that they're misbehaving at a higher rate, or is a different thing, that they're misbehaving at the same rate as everybody else but that they're being punished at a different rate, that there's a double standard in operation?
ALI: Unfortunately in too many circumstances, we have seen the double standard. We've seen instances across the country where students with the very same histories of conduct, who can - who for the very same offense received differing punishment, oftentimes with African-American students receiving a much harsher punishment.
But that is not the only answer. These data, as you mention, portend a very disturbing picture. The reason for them vary. These data, though, raise a lot more questions than they answer, and step one is getting to the root cause of why these patterns exist.
You mentioned, John, on boys versus girls. Yes, we're seeing in the sample, for example, that although boys and girls represent about half each of the sample size, boys - 74 percent of the expulsions are given to boys. It could be the perceived or very real behavioral struggles that happen too often in our schools, but when we unpack those data further and, for example, look at the rate of suspensions for those students suspended out of school, when we look at the rate for black boys and the rate for black girls, we realize that African-American students are suspended at significantly higher rates than their peers.
African-Americans, about one in five will be subject to at least one out-of-school suspension sometime during their schooling career and over one in 10 African-American girls. So while there is no one answer or one solution to these problems, for sure we know that this kind of disparity is hugely concerning. Where there is treatment, different treatment or disparity impact in violation of the nation's federal civil rights laws, we will enforce vigorously.
But it requires a lot more supports and training for schools and school leaders that are struggling with classroom management and school culture issues is one way.
DONVAN: Let's bring in Michelle(ph) from Vestal, New York. Did I pronounce your town correctly, Michelle?
MICHELLE: It's Vestal, yes.
DONVAN: Vestal. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
MICHELLE: Hi, there. I am a student-teacher for special education, and I just want to say that I agree with the speaker. As I'm teaching boys who are labeled with emotional disturbances, they come from a lot of homes that are in poverty, and typically I've noticed that there's not the support for teachers from the administration as much to give alternative discipline to boys that have disabilities that result in violent behaviors. And because of these behaviors, they're kicked out of the classroom, out of sight, out of mind. They lose (unintelligible)...
DONVAN: Can I interrupt, Michelle? I'm sorry to interrupt, but I think you might know something that we don't know. When they're kicked - as you say, out of sight, out of mind - where do they actually end up? Where is out of sight and out of mind?
MICHELLE: Out of sight, out of mind, it might be they were just sent home, which can reward the behavior. They get to leave school, you know, a place where they come and struggle every single day. They might go to rooms where they're just put in isolation, there's no instruction, and I just think there needs to be more training for teachers.
I'm noticing this as a new teacher myself, that I would like more resources to help these boys and make sure they're getting the instruction they deserve as their peers get without being isolated, I guess you could say.
DONVAN: Michelle, thanks very much for your call.
MICHELLE: Thank you.
DONVAN: I want to bring in Carla(ph) from Eckhart, Indiana. Hi, Carla, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
CARLA: Yeah, I'm also a special ed teacher, and I see a ton more boys, but I also see a ton more minorities labeled and kicked out of classrooms and things like that. And I think a huge part is that teachers aren't culturally aware. They, like, you know, they expect kids to do what is culturally white things, but they don't make exceptions.
For example, like, we want kids to look you in the eye, but in the Hispanic culture, looking an adult in the eye when you're getting in trouble is disrespectful, and yet we push that. And I get the same kind of things. Like, we need to learn about all cultures and have that training so that it's not just my way or my culture's way, and then we might not have, oh, well, let's kick him out of school, or let's suspend them for this, when maybe that's a part of their culture, and they're acting what would be normally OK.
DONVAN: So it sounds, Russlynn, as though Carla is saying some of this has to do with teachers, what the teachers know.
ALI: Well, sometimes these decisions are made in very - when they're trying to control a classroom, and as you've heard both Carla and Michelle say, they need supports on how to do this better and ensure they are catching their students before they slip, and they work on alternatives to expulsion or out-of-school suspension or school-related arrests.
I mean, what we are seeing in these data across the board is that the school-to-prison pipeline is very real throughout our country. What we need to ensure is that we have a cradle-to-career pipeline with the right supports, with the right interventions, with the right tools. We know that there are schools and districts and classrooms everywhere defying these trends.
One of the most exciting parts of the opportunity gap tool that we released last week is the ability to find just that, those seeing-is-believing schools, those places that are showing us ways that it can be done better.
DONVAN: And when we come back from the break, we're going to be talking a little bit more about some of those tools. But I want to thank Russlynn Ali for joining us. She is assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Thank you very much for being on TALK OF THE NATION.
ALI: Thank you so much.
DONVAN: And when we come back, we'll ask for more of your questions from teachers and administrators. What are the consequences of this disparity? And what needs to change to address the problem? Our number is 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We've laid out the scope of this problem now. Far more black and Latino students face discipline at school, including suspension and expulsion, than other ethnic groups. This is based on a new survey from the Department of Education.
And now we're going to talk more about the consequences of those numbers and what to do about it. And we would like to hear from you, from teachers and administrators. What are the consequences of this disparity in discipline, and what needs to change to address the problem? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Matt Cregor. He is an assistant counsel of the Education Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Matt Cregor, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
MATT CREGOR: Thank you for having me here.
DONVAN: So what's interesting about you, Matt, in addition to the work you do as an advocate, you are also - you are in the classroom. You taught at middle school in New York. And we'd like to get a little bit of your take on what you observed from your days in the classroom. Were you - for example as a young teacher, were you - did you have discipline figured out? Is it an easy call to know what to do when a kid misbehaves?
CREGOR: Absolutely not. And I really appreciate the comments that Michelle and Carla offered earlier. As much training as you seek out and as much guidance as you seek out as a young teacher, the thing that you lack most, perhaps, is classroom management skills.
And I was fortunate enough to be at a school where, at the beginning of the year, some master teachers sat me down and said: Unless you call each of your students' parents tonight, this week, and establish a rapport, begin the relationship and really harness those relationships to improve your classroom, you're not going to get them to behave for you, Mr. Cregor.
DONVAN: So what are the consequences of these suspensions and these expulsions? And does suspension tend to lead to expulsion? And does expulsion tend to lead to separation completely from the school system?
CREGOR: The research is unfortunately damning. Looking at work from the Council of State Governments, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, out-of-school youth are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school, to be retained a grade, to become involved in the juvenile and criminal systems.
We know that when a student is arrested in school, they are twice as likely to drop out as their peers. Their first court appearance makes them four times as likely to drop out. There is an incredible correlation between how we're disciplining our students and what's happening to their futures, their educational futures.
DONVAN: So what is your thinking on what's behind this? And I've read some of what you've written about it over the years. You've been looking at this for a long time. And one thing you focus on is kind of the sense that schools have an incentive for their own bureaucratic survival, to unload kids who are causing trouble because those kids will take with them potentially their low test scores, and the school that's left behind without them will score higher.
Is there evidence that that's actually happening?
CREGOR: I think as we've looked at the discipline trends since, for example, the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we've seen a pretty significant spike in both our out-of-school suspension and our expulsion rates. When we see that happen, and when we hear about studies of teaching to the bubble kids, the kids that are on the verge of scoring better on their test scores than their peers, we get a sense that some students will matter more to a school and matter more to a school's scores.
Consequently, some students will matter less, and when that happens, there becomes a perverse incentive to push students out in order to, in quotation marks, achieve. But part of this also...
DONVAN: Just so I understand, so they get a downgrade, basically, in their status. They get a - if we lose this kid, and if there's a way, in fact, to lose this kid, we may score better, we may get to keep our jobs.
CREGOR: In the name of leaving no child behind, I'm afraid we've doubled the discipline rates that we had in the 1970s. But this doesn't happen simply because of No Child Left Behind or these broader macro reforms that we've seen. Another wave of this that we have to bring into the equation, into the discussion, is the reliance on zero-tolerance discipline.
As a former teacher and as a parent, there is perhaps nothing more important to establish in a school building first than safety. We need that so that students feel that they can come in and learn, and teachers can come in and teach. Sadly, what we're doing in the name of safely, which is relying on out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests to handle routine matters of discipline is not only proven to harm students' academic outcomes, but it's not even proven to make our schools safer.
DONVAN: Let's bring in Mike from Walker, Michigan. Hi, Mike, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
MIKE: Hello there. I just wanted to kind of bring up a point that I teach in Michigan, and we have, in 2010 I believe, I read the statistics that Michigan is the most segregated state in the United States. I teach in a urban setting, one of the top three largest school districts in Michigan, and what I see is that routinely, children are suspended out of school, they don't come back, and then because they're considered dropouts, we get less money and less resources to be able to pull these students back in.
Our numbers are cut, our funding is cut, and so in this big urban school district, the more students that drop out, the less money we make. The less money we make, the more difficult it is to retain these students.
DONVAN: So it's a cycle.
MIKE: It is very much a cycle, and I also, I work in a detention center for a good portion of my day, and what I see is that students from the outlying urban or suburban districts, around the urban center, their students stay in detention for less time. Their students don't stay as long. The ones that come from the city proper, it's really, there's a disparity there.
DONVAN: So Mike, what do you think that disparity is about? What's driving it?
MIKE: I'm not exactly sure. That's a great question, and I think that part of it boils down to funding, part of it boils down to culture, and part of boils down to the economy.
DONVAN: And also, Craig was saying that the policy of zero tolerance is essentially giving school districts no choice. Are you in that sort of situation, where if there's a certain level of behavior reached, the kid is out, and that's the end of the story?
MIKE: You know, not so much. I mean, we harp zero tolerance, we pound zero tolerance, but I mean, we had students in Michigan get, you know, elementary school students get suspended out of school for bringing nail clippers to school, things that are just insane.
And so we need to temper these kind of policies with a real-world - I mean, we live in, you know, the millennium. We live in the 2,000-and-whatevers. And we need to realize that all our students don't fit in this nice, neat little no-tolerance package.
DONVAN: All right, Mike, thanks very much, and Matt Cregor - I think I just called you Craig by mistake...
DONVAN: ...so if I did, if I did I apologize. You were talking about the need to keep schools safe, and yet the problem of the zero-tolerance policy really - I think you're saying it's kind of gone to extremes. But the zero-tolerance policy did come out, I believe, out of the 1990s after Columbine and such episodes as that, that any threat from a kid, any threat from a kid needs to be taken exceedingly seriously because in episodes where it wasn't taken seriously, when it was seen as boys will boys, or it was just talk, led to disastrous consequences.
So what's the solution to what looks like a dilemma? On the one hand, there is pressure and concern and bad experience in not taking aggressive behavior, or language or threats seriously, and on the other hand what you point out is it can go so far that something that would have - ultimately would not have had disastrous consequences is nevertheless resulting in kicking a kid out of school for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time?
CREGOR: This is an excellent question, and zero tolerance, sadly, right, the reliance on suspension, expulsion or arrest to handle these matters is not a response, is not a response to student discipline. It's - you know, research shows that if anything, out-of-school time is a reinforcer, not an inhibitor, of school misbehavior.
And when we rely on these practices to address trivial matters of school discipline, routine things that when I was a teacher we were told to call home about, we create the wrong expectation. And in sending kids out of school for more time, relying on the criminal justice system to handle trivial acts of misbehavior, we do more to further alienate our students. And if we are concerned, as we all should be, about the threat of school shootings and the danger and violence that can ensure, what we need to do is think about the remedies that are proactive, preventative, positive and can save our schools from that situation.
In Clayton County, Georgia, prior to implementing a best practice, a model school code for how schools relate to what's arrestable versus what is a disciplinary offense, you had juvenile probation officers and school resource officers ferrying students in and out of the building for wearing sagging pants or having a hat on backwards or what have you.
This is not what we intended when we wanted to make our schools safer and protect our students and our teachers from shootings and violence.
DONVAN: Let me share with you an email that we've just received from Nancy(ph) - excuse me - who is - describes herself as an urban high school teacher: As an urban high school teacher for 20-plus years, I have to protest the assumption that us white teachers are culturally insensitive. When I kick a student out of class, it's for behaviors like refusing to stop talking during the lesson, using bleepable language, refusing to sit in their assigned seat, et cetera. Their skin color has nothing to do with it. Their behaviors are the same ones that will get them fired from their job. Respect and self-control are not racial or ethnic attributes, nor are motivation and effort. These are the qualities that make a student successful. The lack of these qualities are what result in class and school dismissals.
Can you respond to that?
CREGOR: Absolutely. First, I think there's a significant difference between a student being asked out of the classroom and a student being arrested for something that's happening in the building. Here in New York, it was only two years ago...
DONVAN: But, in fairness, she didn't pose the dichotomy as being quite that broad. She was - and I may be wrong about this, but my sense is that she's saying not just class, but also school dismissals that - I think she's talking about situations in which this kind of behavior could lead to expulsion. Is that realistic? Do these kinds of behaviors lead to expulsion?
CREGOR: Sadly they do, right? Like it was - Alexa Gonzales, only a couple of years ago here in New York, who doodled I love my friends in erasable marker on her desk and was arrested, right? We have way too many stories, including that of Jaisha Scott in Florida who, basically a 5-year-old, who threw the equivalent of a temper tantrum and was arrested. The only reason we, as a community, found out about it was because the arrest video of Jaisha Scott was used for training protocol for schools.
So that's - and these are the extreme examples. And I cite them because we need to have this in the back of our minds as we're dealing with these problems. When it comes to keeping order in our classroom, a master teacher, such as the person who wrote in, probably already has the tactics that a lot of us right now lack, especially as we see a tremendous shift and change in the age of our teaching force.
We are watching, too often, teachers come to us, saying, you know, we have not been trained in how to de-escalate a situation, how to resolve conflict. I'm lacking basic classroom management skills in my classroom. And when we see that and it's coupled with numbers such as 44 percent of highly qualified teachers leaving the profession because of issues related to discipline, we have a problem that is harming not only our students, but our teachers and our schools. And when we think about the funds that we're putting into the juvenile justice system to educate out-of-school youth, we have a problem for our pocketbooks.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's have Tony(ph) from Portland, Oregon, join us. Hi, Tony. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: Hi. You're on the air.
TONY: I'm on the air?
DONVAN: Yeah, yeah. You're speaking to John Donvan and Matt Cregor.
TONY: Yeah, I was calling in. I had a comment. I just wanted to - I'm a law enforcement professional from Oregon. I've worked as a school resource officer in the past for a few years. And I worked in a school setting where I represented all the feeder schools out of the elementary, middle schools and high schools and in a very diverse community of students. So I was directly involved in keeping the safety at the school, along with the administrators, and involved in many of these settings where expulsions or suspensions took place from perhaps criminal behavior or, you know, something as incidental as, you know, just misbehavior.
But I wanted to - one of the points I wanted to make from my experience and perspective is that a lot of the times when you have a higher volume of students that were being expelled ultimately, it - there seemed to be a common denominator to me. And maybe this would be very obvious to many of your listeners, but a common denominator was a family support system that seemed to be lacking in the majority of these students, and we're having these ongoing problems with it.
Of course there are exceptions, but the majority - the volume of these students that were being expelled ultimately for just repeated bad behavior, actual crimes, things like that, within the school, there was always, it seemed to me, the majority of the time, this lack of family support. And so I think the root of many of these problems is going deeper into the community outside of the school system.
DONVAN: All right, Tony. Thank you for your call. And I want to actually ask Matt Cregor to hold his response to that so that we can have one - bring in - time for one other call, and then perhaps, Matt, you can respond to one or both of these calls. And I just want to bring in Diane(ph) as well in San Mateo, California. Hi, Diane. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DIANE: I'm a 40 - retired 40-year teacher. I spent a lot of time in classrooms where oftentimes I was the only white person in the classroom. It's all black kids. I want to focus and address that kid who comes to class - black, white, boy, girl - who's done his homework, who's here to learn, and nothing can get done in the classroom. He's - because of the bad behavior of some kids. And the teacher spends well over 50 percent of the time trying to get that kid to cooperate with the lesson.
And what's happening is all the kids are watching, and they're - what lesson are we teaching if we just keep - I don't know what I'm trying to say. I mean, I went to the very end of it before I kicked the kid out of class. But it - but when the kid was gone, learning took place for that little quiet kid sitting back there who comes every day.
DONVAN: All right.
DIANE: I got to teach to him too.
DONVAN: Yeah. We're a little bit close on time, so I just want to ask Matt to respond to that.
CREGOR: These are both excellent points and excellent questions. I want to flag two things. First, in the Council of State Governments' study on Texas, they looked at schools with practically identical demographics and then compared their discipline rates and found shocking disparities therein. So in some schools serving the exact same population of students, you had minimal discipline rates. In other schools, you had wild discipline rates suspension-wise, expulsion-wise, what have you. This suggests that part of this is about how an administration approaches discipline and what an administration intentionally does to create the type of culture or climate in the building that's going to be conducive to learning for both students and teachers alike.
When it comes to this broader question of what are we going to do to protect the education of that one student in the room, this is where we need as teachers, as parents, as students and as advocates of all stripes to pull together and identify those best practices that are working. And they are. And it's up to us to share these and make sure they're working for every student in that classroom.
DONVAN: Matt Cregor is assistant counsel of the Education Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Thanks for your time today. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.