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Campaign for America's Future: An End To Sanction-Driven Education?

Last week, the Obama administration took an important step for the well being of the nation’s youth – especially those who are of racial minorities – by issuing new guidelines that many hope will shut down what has come to be known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

This action – welcome, for sure – constitutes a beginning to what should be a major shift in education policies across the board.

First, about the guidelines …

“Leaders of the U.S. departments of Education and Justice,” Education Week reported, “issued new guidance on how school leaders can ensure that discipline policies are drafted and applied in a manner that does not discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.”

What the new guidelines do, the reporters explained, is make it a violation of the Civil Rights Act for schools to “draft policies that unfairly target specific student groups in word or in application.”

The new guidance addresses “what’s known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ the term critics use for policies that they say result in unnecessary and inappropriate referrals from schools to the criminal justice system. Advocates for school discipline reform have argued that such policies disproportionately impact minority racial and ethnic groups.”

Leaders should also seek alternatives to “exclusionary” penalties like suspension and expulsion that “rob students of valuable classroom time, often for nonviolent offenses.”

At The Huffington Post, the Senior Legislative Counsel on civil rights issues for the ACLU, Deborah J. Vagins, wrote that the Obama administration’s actions constituted an acknowledgement that “race discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

Vagins noted, “African-American students comprise 15 percent of students in the collected data, but are 35 percent of the students who receive one suspension and nearly half of the students 44 percent who are suspended more than once. Over 50 percent of students in school-related arrests or who are referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. Students with disabilities make up 14 percent of students in the collection, but are 76 percent of students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.

“This guidance is sorely needed,” concluded Vagins.

To hail the Obama administration’s action, a leading civil rights and public school advocacy organization, the National Opportunity To Learn Campaign, offered advocates an online thank-you note to send to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, who jointly issued the guidelines. [Disclosure: OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

OTL stated, “This guidance, the very first of its kind at the federal level, provides thirteen concrete action steps schools should take: from keeping police out of minor infractions, to integrating social and emotional learning into the curriculum, to creating an overall positive climate throughout the school.”

But to put the celebration into context, OTL’s inclusion of this sentence should not be overlooked: “These groundbreaking federal guidelines are the kind of support and leadership from Washington D.C. we all want to see more of.” (emphasis added)

Education Policy And Over-reliance On Punitive Measures

Amplifying OTL’s point that the new disciplinary guidelines needed to be followed by more examples of a new “kind” of “leadership,” prominent voices in the nation’s education debate put the events of the day into a larger context.

Coincident to the release of the new guidelines was a panel Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline by the Albert Shanker Institute.

Two participants in the panel discussion, Yale Law School Professor James Forman, Jr. and U.S. Rep Keith Ellison provided yet more examples of how harsh disciplinary policies in the nation’s schools have gotten totally out of whack.

Forman described an incident in which a student was jailed with other violent criminals for “assault with a deadly weapon, chocolate milk” – a bizarre case where the student had been incarcerated for throwing a milk carton at a fellow student in the school cafeteria. He explained how students who get caught up in disciplinary hysteria get pushed into a system that ultimately estranges them from their schools and makes it harder, after infractions have been resolved, to reconnect to their schools.

Ellison related a story from his days as an attorney in which a student was sent to criminal court over a minor incident at school, involving “a damn pager,” which led to a lifetime of being embroiled in the criminal justice system.

Ellison maintained, “The War on Drugs has bled into the school discipline policy,” in that discriminatory school suspension and expulsion practices reflect the racial imbalances evident in prosecutions and sentencing of drug use among African Americans.

Forman declared the problem with current school discipline practices “beyond a racial issue,” pointing out that in communities where students are “almost all white,” excessive suspensions and expulsions are a problem as well. “We’re over-relying on punitive measures,” Forman concluded.

Reinforcing Forman’s call for a reexamination of policy by “punitive measures, fellow panelist, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that America’s public schools have increasingly become “an alienating environment.” Not just zero tolerance policies but also policies that promote budget austerity and an instructional program of “test-test-test” have narrowed the curriculum, reduced school counseling, regimented teaching, and sapped the joy out of learning.

According to Weingarten, when confronted with problems – whether behaviorally related or academic – our approach has been to apply punishments for crossing bureaucratically drawn lines that are often based on superficial data and arbitrary judgments.

In her remarks, Weingarten pointed to documents related to work issued by Fair Test, The National Center on Fair and Open Testing on “How Testing Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

Fair Test found, “Zero tolerance discipline and high-stakes testing policies have similar philosophical underpinnings and similar destructive results … Together, they have helped turn schools into hostile environments for many students. The end result is a ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”

A previous report Fair Test Issued with civil rights and justice advocates – including The Advancement Project, the Education Law Center, and the NAACP – traced blame for the school-to-prison pipeline to the nation’s No Child Left Behind policy:

Congress designed NCLB to hold schools accountable for student performance, correctly paying specific attention to differentials in outcomes by race, socioeconomic status, disability, and English language proficiency. However, the law focused its accountability framework almost exclusively on students’ standardized test performance [and] placed punitive sanctions on struggling schools without providing enough tools.

Along with new zero-tolerance discipline measures, the report maintained, a “get tough” policy related to academics has fed the school-to-prison pipeline by narrowing curriculum to tested subjects only and stripping schools down to only those obligations that directly relate to increasing test scores.

This kind of education policy, Weingarten maintained, amounts to a “sanction our way to success” formula that has become detrimental to the nation’s students and unworkable for educators in the field.

“We’re not going to sanction our way to success in school,” she concluded.

Fair Test and other public education advocates maintain that in addition to discipline reform, the next policy shift needs to be for assessment reform.

Experienced education observers have predicted that the oncoming election season in 2014 will likely entail heated debates and political battles over high-stakes assessments, their role in the rollout of new standards, and the use of the test scores in teacher evaluations and new school grading systems.

The Obama administration would do Democratic candidates a big favor by following up new, more positive discipline guidelines with assessment reforms that echo this new direction away from punitive education policies.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...