I have been there; every teacher has. The clock is ticking, you've got just fifteen minutes left to wrap up the lesson, and the time is being chipped away by a student who is disrupting the classroom. How you respond to that situation involves the balance of dozens of different factors. It's complicated, and some of that complexity is captured in a new report out this week.
The Thomas Fordham Institute is a right-tilted think tank that has advocated for many education reform causes, from Common Core to charter schools. Earlier this week they released a new survey, produced in conjunction with RAND, entitled "Discipline Reform Through the Eyes of Teachers."
Cautions and limitations
The survey used the RAND American Teacher Panel a large (over 84,000) collection of teachers intended to be a nationally representative sample. From that larger group, RAND selected 2,077 teachers, and 1,219 actually responded. The sample was constructed to have an emphasis on New York City, so of the respondents, 243 were New York City teachers. Respondents were broken down by black and white, and by over/under 75 percent of students on free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) (a commonly used shorthand for indicating poverty levels in a school). They are also broken down by grade bands (3–5, 6–8, 9–12). By the time you have done all this breakdown, you get some seriously tiny sample sizes. Black teachers of grades 3–5 in NYC at schools with less than 75 percent FRPL? There are only three of them as respondents in this survey.
The report notes that most respondents feel strongly about their answers, but if you don't feel strongly about the subject, that makes you likely to be among the people who don't bother to fill the survey out.
The survey spins off the arguments surrounding the Obama administration guidelines meant to reduce suspensions of students of color—the same guidelines that Betsy DeVos had done away with in 2018. Fordham is not without bias; they believe that DeVos "got this one right." The survey focuses in particular on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) as well as disciplinary alternatives.
The report offers five major findings, each of which raises additional questions. Because this is complicated.
Teachers in high-poverty schools report a more disorderly and unsafe environment.
Asked about physical attacks, student fighting and verbal disrespect, teachers in high-poverty schools (over 75 percent FRPL) reported far more of these behaviors than teachers in low-poverty schools (under 25 percent FRPL). Break the results down by teacher race, and there's no big difference in percentages.
The big question, of course, is why. The worst possible conclusion to reach would be to argue that Those People's Children, children who grow up in poverty, are just naturally more poorly behaved because of their defective culture of origin.
High-poverty schools have a high teacher turnover rate. A younger, newer staff will be likely to have more disciplinary issues, both because of inexperience and because they haven't had the time to build the kinds of relationships that create a more positive environment. Research shows that poverty creates a variety of effects that interfere with education. Students may also have difficulty buying into a system that feels hostile to them.
Most teachers say that discipline is inconsistent or inadequate, and that suspension numbers have dropped at least in part because of bad behavior that is tolerated or underreported.
Two-thirds of the respondents said that school policy was inconsistently enforced. This was ranked a bigger problem than community factors such as poverty; uninvolved parents or troubled families topped the list.
About a third of high-poverty school teachers report that administrators tell students to stay home without recording it as a suspension at least some of the time. The use of suspension numbers as part of school evaluation opened the door to Campbell's Law; school discipline is complicated, but suspension numbers are simple, and simple to game in easy ways. By insisting on such a simple measure, government ensures that the measure will be at best not useful, and at worst will interfere with the disciplinary process, pushing administrators to watch their numbers rather than the context and details of an individual situation.
When it comes to school discipline, inconsistency is the worst. When neither students nor faculty know where the lines are drawn, the lines cease to be effective.
While teachers see value in newer approaches, most also say that suspension can be useful and effective.
As one teacher put it, "NOTHING works for all students." For every method listed, from positive reinforcement systems to restorative justice, at least 80 percent of teachers said the technique was at least somewhat effective.
That same over 80 percent margin said that they at least somewhat agreed that OSS can send a useful message to parents about the seriousness of the student behavior, and that OSS can remove disruptive students so that others can learn. Teachers also felt that OSS was for use only with serious offenses and not, for instance, cutting class or verbal disrespect. Context also matters, especially when the behavior is repeated and other methods have been tried already.
As with many educational issues, policymakers may argue the philosophy, but teachers are more focused on the pragmatic questions. What will help this student? What will keep this classroom a space for learning? What will actually work? When policymakers limit the workable tools that teachers can use, that's frustrating.
Most teachers agree the majority of students suffer because of a few chronic disrupters.
Seventy-seven percent agreed. In what may be an alarming result, 70 percent of general-ed teachers agreed or somewhat agreed that students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) were treated too leniently. Sixty percent of special ed teachers agreed. This hints at one of the eternal issues of education—should students with special needs be placed in "regular" classrooms, or have their own classrooms that more directly focus on their needs. This pendulum has never stopped swinging, and likely never will.
There's an issue that this survey overlooks—class size. In a classroom of ten students, making adjustments for individual issues is easier. Building relationships and respect, addressing individual student concerns—in short, many of the things that keep disciplinary issues from erupting—become nearly impossible in a classroom of thirty or more students.
African American teachers believe that disciplinary results are racially biased. They also believe that suspensions and expulsions should be used more often.
All things being equal, the survey asked, if a black and white student commit the same offense, will the results be harsher for one or the other. Seventy-seven percent of black teachers said results would be harsher for black students; 24 percent of white teachers agreed.
White teachers were slightly more likely to have suspended a student last year. But all teachers in high-poverty schools said that in school and out of school suspensions, alternative schools and expulsions were used too little.
It is no surprise that schools disproportionately discipline black students. In the justice system, when blacks and whites commit the same crime, blacks are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and likely to receive a longer sentence. Adults view black girls as less innocent, and black boys as older and less innocent. We have issues with systemic racism in this country; it cannot be a surprise that those issues extend into schools.
The fact that black teachers see uneven application of discipline, but still call for more disciplinary measures, has been the big takeaway from this report. But this shouldn't be a surprise, either, unless you are someone who assumes that black teachers and parents somehow don't value discipline as much as white folks. That's an assumption that goes hand in hand with the racist notion that black folks have more trouble with the law because they come from a culture that doesn't value law and order and self-discipline, that Those People come from a culture of violence and disrespect and that's why they get in trouble with authorities so often. If you are someone who was surprised by the conclusion that black teachers see a lot of racism in disciplinary practices, but still call for more effective and consistent discipline, you might want to ask yourself why exactly you found that surprising.
The big balancing act
When a student acted out in my classroom, I was aware that the behavior was probably the result of many factors, from family issues to personal struggles to frustration with the material to learning challenges to any number of failures on my part. I was also aware that the business of establishing a respectful, functional learning environment had been going on, or not, weeks and even months before this particular moment of misbehavior. I was aware that this moment was a signal that I needed to work on some things with this student going forward.
But I was also aware that there were twenty-some other students in the room whose education had just come to a grinding halt.
Teachers need a variety of tools at their disposal to deal with student discipline issues, and it is not particularly helpful to have someone sitting in a far-off office limiting the choices available.
But teachers need to be more aware of and sensitive to their own biases, and they need to be part of disciplinary consistency within a building.
Oppressive, punitive, authoritarian discipline can create an atmosphere that blames and shames students, creating a school culture that absolutely destroys trust and respect and stifles any hope of learning.
But a lack of boundaries and rules can create a culture in which learning can never really take root.
Oversight of school discipline needs to be a part of how we address greater equity and justice in our society as a whole. It's destructive and wasteful to criminalize children and teenagers. The goal should be to keep students in school and to get them an education, somehow.
But that oversight needs to be meaningful, and not simple and simply gamed numbers.
This survey is a rare policy paper that actually consults the voices of teachers. The report has some interesting data, but a large number of respondents included long-form responses with their surveys, and those have all been included in the report. They are by far the most interesting reading here, and convey as well as anything could just how complicated the issues are. If you look at the report, take the time to read them all.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Forbes.