Do suspension alternatives work? We don’t know

Many schools are reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, but it’s not clear how discipline alternatives affect school safety, according to a study reported in Education Next.

One of the only programs supported by strong research is Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, authors write. “The approach aims to change school culture by setting clear behavioral expectations, designing a continuum of consequences for infractions, and reinforcing positive behavior.” Students say their school is safer even as suspensions are less common.

Other strategies may be effective too, but so far the evidence is “thin.”

It’s easy to reduce suspension rates by lowering behavioral expectations. Creating a safe, orderly learning environment is much, much harder.

It’s also not clear that “exclusionary discipline” (suspension and expulsion) creates a school-to-prison pipeline, the authors write. Children who frequently get in trouble at school, whether suspended or not, may be much more likely to get in trouble as adults. Chicken, egg.

Black pre-K teachers are tough on black kids

Black preschoolers are far more likely to be suspended, according to federal data, mirroring the harsher discipline they’re likely to experience in K-12 schools.

A new Yale study concluded that white and black preschool teachers expect trouble from black boys, reports Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic. However, white teachers tended to go easy on black children, while black teachers were tougher on black students.

Asked to observe video clips of children to spot “challenging behaviors,” teachers more closely observed black boys, an eye-tracking system found.

Then teachers read bout behaviors such as “difficulties napping and following instructions to blurting out answers and taunting other children,” writes Anderson.

Each vignette contained a pre-selected, stereotypical black or white boy or girl name: DeShawn, Jake, Latoya, and Emily. The participants were then asked to rate the severity of the behavioral challenges—the only difference in each vignette was the perceived race and sex of the child—and the likelihood that they would recommend suspension or expulsion.

White teachers appeared to have lower expectations of black children, finding them as a group more prone to misbehavior, “so a vignette about a black child with challenging behaviors [was] not appraised as … unusual, severe, or out of the ordinary.”

Conversely, black teachers seemed to hold black preschoolers to a higher behavioral standard; pay notably more attention to the behaviors of black boys; and recommend harsher, more exclusionary discipline.

Black parents believe they need to be tough to prepare their children for “a harsh world,” says researcher Walter Gilliam, a Yale professor. “It seems possible that the black preschool teachers may be operating under similar beliefs … that black children require harsh assessment and discipline.”

Tracking black boys more doesn’t prove “implicit bias,” argues Kay Hymowitz of City Journal.  Nobody says teachers have “implicit bias” against boys, even though they track them much more than girls, she adds.

BTW, I first heard “implicit bias” from Hillary Clinton in the first debate. Since then, I’ve heard it multiple times a day. I miss plain old “bias.”

Teaching courtesy, etiquette

Alphonso Hawes, 10, “learned how to be a gentleman to a woman” in the after-school etiquette club at Baltimore’s Shady Springs Elementary. “I learned how to speak properly,” he told Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie. “I learned how to write thank you letters. I learned how not to bully.”

Joshua Black, a fourth grader, participates in "Guys with Ties, Girls in Pearls," an after-school etiquette club: Photo Baltimore Sun

Joshua Black, a fourth grader, participates in “Guys with Ties, Girls with Pearls,” an after-school etiquette club. Photo: Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun

Wendy Carver, a guidance counselor, started “Guys with Ties, Girls with Pearls” four years ago. “It has been my hope that by teaching the students manners and etiquette they will become more respectful of others and themselves,” she said.

Thursday is an optional dress-up day for fourth- and fifth-graders. Boys are encouraged to wear jackets and ties, the girls to wear dresses and skirts.

Once a month, students stay after school to learn “how to correctly pull out a chair for a lady, how to write a thank you note, and what they should or shouldn’t say on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat,” writes Bowie. About half the fourth- and fifth-graders choose to participate.

Teacher Julie Taylorson was teaching Internet etiquette to a group of children one afternoon.

Before posting anything on social media, she told them, ask yourself three questions: Is it nice? Is it honest? Is it necessary?

She warned them that what they put on social media can’t be erased, so it will be there for their parents, future teachers and future employers to see.

. . . In the next room, another teacher was helping students think about how and when to write a thank you letter.

The etiquette club “has changed the whole atmosphere of the school,” said Taylorson, a second grade teacher.

At Randallstown Elementary, a program called Boys in the Good encourages boys to work on projects that help their school and community, simultaneously fostering good behavior and good deeds.

Manifest injustice

Special-ed students can disrupt classrooms without consequences, if their behavior is a “manifestation” of their disability, writes Darren on Right on the Left Coast. A training session — lots of slides — left him “extremely frustrated when I’m told that essentially, special education students are the only students that matter, and screw everyone else.”

These days, parents “will fight any effort to require their angel to conform to even the most nominal standards of conduct,” he writes. Schools often give in to avoid an expensive fight.

It’s even harder to discipline special-ed students.

If a special education student has over 10 days of suspension in a school year (which should be an indicator of something right there), a meeting with a large number of people must be held for each additional suspension to determine if the misbehavior is a “manifestation” of the student’s disability.  If it’s a manifestation, they cannot be suspended.

He wonders: “What disability manifests itself via vandalism?” Is being an “a–hole” a disability?

Will pre-K lead to burnout?

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program produced no long-term academic or behavioral gains, according to a Vanderbilt study. Controls were children whose parents applied for pre-K but didn’t get a space.

Tennessee’s pre-K program is as high quality as other state pre-K programs, write researchers Dale C. Farran and Mark W. Lipsey. If uneven quality explains the disappointing results, it’s an issue for all state pre-K programs.

VPK children scored higher on achievement tests at the start of kindergarten and teachers said they had better behaviors than the controls. However, by the spring, both groups were doing equally well on academics and kindergarten teachers said the non-VPK students were better behaved.

First grade teachers rated the VPK children “as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” write Farran and Lipsey.

In second and third grades, the VPK group did worse on academic measures than the controls. Teachers saw no difference in children’s behavior or attitudes.

Tennessee designed the program with care, the researchers write. VPK meets more of the National Institute for Early Education Research quality benchmarks than programs in Florida, Texas,  Massachusetts, Louisiana and New Mexico.

Fade out is a common pattern, Farran and Lipsey write. But why did kids do worse? They suspect burnout from “too much repetition of the same content and instructional format.”

Rather than building enthusiasm for learning, confidence in their abilities and a foundational understanding of literacy and math, the programs may only be teaching children how to behave in school, an enthusiasm that fades with repeated exposure.

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that programs derided as “low quality” tend to be very large,” writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. “The benefits of small intensive programs designed by top-flight researchers” tend to vanish “when you kick a vast government bureaucracy into gear.”

In the 1990s, Quebec started a low-cost universal child care program, notes McArdle. It’s produced few cognitive benefits and children are doing worse on non-cognitive measures, a new study finds.

Bad boys prosper — sometimes

Aggressive, restless, hard-to-handle students do worse in school, but earn significantly more as adults, concludes a study that followed Britons from age 11, when they were rated by their teachers, into their 50s. However, aggression didn’t pay for children raised in poverty, notes Nicholas Papageorge. Patterns were similar for men and women.

In the U.S., aggressive black children appear to do much worse than similar whites, he writes on Brookings’ Chalkboard.  “We suspect that part of this is due to higher rates of interaction with the criminal justice system.”

Donald Trump didn't succeed by being conscientious team player.

Being a conscientious team player was not the secret to Donald Trump’s success.

The April Fool’s Gladfly was way ahead, reporting on new research showing “the planet’s richest and most powerful denizens demonstrate . . . arrogance, zealotry, self-promotion, narcissism, and an unwavering willingness to run roughshod over others.”

“Grit and perseverance are still valuable noncognitive skills,” concedes researcher Angela Duckworth. “But only for minions, lackeys, and members of one’s entourage.”

Demerits go high-tech

ClassDojo — a popular behavior-tracking app — is raising privacy concerns, according to the New York Times. Tracking technologies make it easy for teachers to award points for good behavior or demerits for bad behavior. Parents can track their child’s conduct, if they choose to sign up.

But some fear a young child’s misdemeanors could be recorded for posterity. The “permanent record” really would be permanent.

HUNTER, N.Y. — For better or for worse, the third graders in Greg Fletcher’s class at Hunter Elementary School always know where they stand.

One morning in mid-October, Mr. Fletcher walked to the front of the classroom where an interactive white board displayed ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

In one out of three U.S. schools, at least one teacher uses ClassDojo, which is free. (There are plans to raise money by targeting ads to parents who sign up.) And there are other tracking apps available.

Critics don’t want teachers to reward of penalize students for subjective acts such as “disrespect,” reports the Times. In addition, they fear “behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly saddling some with ‘a problem child’ label that could stick with them for years.”

The concerns seem silly to me. Teachers have been using points to maintain order — and to communicate their expectations — for decades. This just makes it simpler.

As for privacy, the app doesn’t require the student’s last name. ClassDojo won’t know who’s who –unless the parents sign up to track their child.

Some think it’s wrong to award points and demerits in front of the whole class — again, nothing new. Teachers can use the app privately.

Too strict?

A student at Lyons Community School in New York does an exercise before a student "circle."

A student at Lyons Community School in New York prepares for a student “circle.”

Is this working? asks a story on school discipline policies for NPR’s This American Life.

Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt contrasts a “no excuses” charter school in Brooklyn, Achievement First Bushwick, with a nearby middle/high school, Lyons Community, which stresses “restorative justice.”

AFB students who misbehave gets demerits. Lyons students discuss their decision-making in student circles and and may go before a student justice court.

On Match Education’s blog, guest Ross T. critiques NPR’s story.

Educated in a “no excuses” school in Boston, Rousseau Mieze now teaches middle school at AFB. He’s ambivalent about his old high school’s strict discipline, she writes. She finds it “super confusing” when he gives a a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

Mieze is motivated by fear, she concludes.

Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with.

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment.

The vignette is framed by a discussion of the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that strict discipline leads students — disproportionately minority — to see themselves as “bad kids,”  writes Ross T. “The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration.” And then on to prison.

By contrast, the report on Lyons is glowing.

Jaffe-Walt is impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members.

She doesn’t discuss the schools’ academic results, notes Ross T. The Achievement First middle school earned straight As — based in part on students’ academic gains — on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs. The Lyons high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.

In a few years, we’ll be able to see whether the “no excuses” model increases the number of low-income, minority students who become prison inmates — or college graduates.


Achievement First Bushwick students practice the violin.

As a teacher at a low-performing Memphis high school, Jessica Polner “saw dozens of suspensions and expulsions” for subjectively enforced and overly harsh rules. Carefully and consistently implemented restorative justice programs can be effective, she writes.

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Study: Behavior game really works

Teachers have used the “Good Behavior Game” for 40 years, writes Holly Yettick in Ed Week. Now there’s evidence the old-fashioned game really does improve classroom behavior — significantly.

The class is divided into two teams of even size. Teams get debits for breaking the classroom rules and credits for behaving well. At the end of the week or day, the group with the best behavior and/or fewest infractions gets some type of reward.

The game “allows teachers to engage in several behavior management strategies including acknowledging appropriate behavior, teaching classroom rules, providing feedback about inappropriate behavior, verbal praise, and providing rewards as reinforcement,” writes Andrea Flower, an assistant professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin and her co-authors in a journal article.

. . . the Good Behavior Game had  “a moderate to large effect” on reducing a wide range of challenging classroom behaviors, including aggression, talking out of turn and straying from the task at hand. . . . The game was equally effective in elementary and secondary schools, with behavior immediately improving and remaining better than it had been.

It works best when students choose their own rewards.