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Discipline gap isn't that simple

By Rachel Belin

Contributing Columnist Posted on Thu, Aug. 26, 2004

When the Kentucky Center for School Safety released results from a study on school discipline earlier this year, it reported that blacks throughout the state were being suspended at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.

"Fayette County and other school districts need to put an end to this disparity," cried a Herald-Leader editorial, as if it would be that simple.

But closing the racial gap in student punishment is more than a matter of reining in a few local educators. Anyone who has gone beyond the headlines would know that the problem not only is not new to Kentucky but also is representative of thousands of school systems throughout the country.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that nationwide, African-American students are suspended at twice their proportion in the school population -- a phenomenon first documented in scholarly research at least 25 years ago.

So what is a progressive citizen to do?

We can start with a more honest dialogue. Even a cursory look at the data can help raise the level of discussion.

A 1998 federal report, "America's Kindergartners," suggests that as early as age 5, black children tend to be less prepared to adjust to the behavioral demands of school than their white peers. Teachers responding to the survey indicated racial differences in how well students paid attention in class, whether they were eager to learn new things and whether they were persistent in completing assignments.

So then is a behavior gap at the root of the discipline gap?

Not necessarily. The 2001 Study of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative suggests that the gap is attributable in part to the actions of students and teachers. In that region, the research found, cultural misperception among a predominantly white faculty, student resistance and defiance, and a lack of academic and social support for black students all contributed to blacks being singled out for discipline in school.

It also is likely that general socioeconomic differences contribute to the discipline gap -- though not as much as we might think. A statistical analyst hired by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looked at nearly 40,000 suspension records and found that students who don't live with both parents were 2.3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than students who do.

Given that a disproportionate number of African-American students do not live in two-parent homes, might we just blame the problem on differences in homelife and call it a day?

Again, it's not so simple. After accounting for the combined effects of single-parent households plus poverty, non-traditional homes, special education, being male, and speaking English as a second language, the same Seattle study found that African-American secondary students were still almost two times more likely than students of other races to be suspended or expelled from Seattle's public schools.

This suggests that racism could, indeed, play a role in discipline discrepancies -- though to what extent remains an open question.

While such studies represent just a smattering of available research, they at least hint at the kind of diligence required in trying to resolve classroom inequalities. Worth noting is that the only thing simple here is that the discipline gap is likely due to a host of intricately related factors.

And when it comes to making sure all kids can learn in Fayette County schools, getting a grip on that kind of complexity demands of us far more sleeve-rolling than finger-pointing.

Rachel Belin lives in Lexington. Reach her at rachelburg@post.harvard.edu.

Five Men, Five Different Views on Educating Black Males

by Cassie M. Chew

Diverse Magazine Oct 15, 2007

Black males are discovering that they don’t need to ‘hit the books’ in order to make a living, and this is the reason behind recent statistics that report that as many as half of them drop out of high school and don’t pursue a college education.

“There was a time when we were always taught that education was for us to get a good job, buy a house, raise a family — education doesn’t play the necessary role in those things any longer to young Black men,” according to poet, writer and filmmaker Malik Salaam.

Salaam was a member of a panel of five men who gave passionate, albeit divergent, views on how to make education a priority among today’s Black males during a forum convened by U.S. House Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference last month.

During his opening statement, Johnson cited statistics from the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s December 2006 report, “A Positive Future for Black Males,” which found only 42 percent of Black males entering ninth grade will graduate. The report also found that Black students, who comprise 17 percent of public school students, make up 41 percent of special education placements, and 85 percent of these students, are boys.

The different backgrounds of each panelist shaped their perspectives on these statistics.

Instead of education being the foundation for economic stability, success in the music and entertainment businesses and the sale of illegal drugs has enabled some young Black men without high school diplomas to have nice homes and nice cars, said Salaam, a poet featured on the HBO series “Def Poetry.”

“We have to market education as something that builds the self — that builds the inner person, that builds you as a human being — and get away from the material aspect of it because they can replace that easily with hip hop music and crack cocaine,” Salaam said.

Dr. Robert M. Franklin, president of Morehouse University, recalled the community’s role in getting him to excel in school.

“The elders in my village, in my church, in my neighborhood, they paid attention to my educational achievements. They didn’t wait for graduation, they said ‘boy, you doing good,’” Franklin recalled.

“There’d be a mother in the church that would come by and slip a dollar in my hand and I’d say, ‘My God, somebody notices,’” Franklin said. “We have lost the practice of paying attention to the small achievements in Black boys lives,” he said.

Armstrong Williams, syndicated radio host of “The Right Side” agreed that not enough attention is paid to Black male students who are excelling academically. He didn’t agree that providing positive reinforcement is a responsibility to be shared by the community and argued that success is dependent on the child’s own desire to learn, fueled by parental encouragement.

“It doesn’t matter what the community does. It doesn’t matter what the church does. When that kid gets in that classroom, he or she must have the desire to learn, to have discipline, to respect authority, to understand that they are making an investment,” Williams said.

While growing up, Williams said his parents encouraged him to read newspapers and books. “The best example is not the pastor, it’s not the teacher, it’s the mother and the father who will have the most impact on that child, whether you like it or not,” he said.

Journalist V. Dion Haynes, a Washington Post education writer who contributed to the newspaper’s series “Being a Black Man,” agreed that part of the problem is a breakdown of families, yet said some blame must be placed on a breakdown of the school system.

“In some cases, kids come to school enthusiastic and ready to learn … a lot of them get turned off by education because of the teachers who don’t want to be there, because the building is falling apart, because the quality of the education they get it’s just so low they are not engaged.”

Instead of highlighting his own personal experiences with learning, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the dropout rates are a civil rights issue.

There are issues relating to educational access that weren’t addressed in Brown vs. Board of Education or during the integration of schools that don’t give Black students an equal playing field, Jackson said. He citied policies that base school funding on property tax revenue, voucher programs, educational tracking that puts White students on the academic track and Black males on the athletic track, and policies that lead to greater expulsion rates among Black students.

“I can’t use me as an example for other kids to do the same,” Jackson said. “Black kids are facing structural disorder, and that’s where we do well with equal protection under the law,” Jackson said.

Rep. Johnson said he wants to use the information to develop an initiative.

“My intent is to continue the dialogue and to digest the feedback that I continue to receive,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, the discussion should result in some workable strategies that we can all utilize to address this crisis.”

The Webster Way

By Emily Alpert, San Diego Voices, April 25, 2008

Five years ago, suspensions abounded at Webster Elementary. Fights regularly erupted during recess and teachers feared violent outbursts from gang-involved 6th graders. New principal Jennifer White was shocked to learn that Webster had 70 suspensions the year before she arrived, and 80 the year before that.

"My first year, [one day] by 10 a.m. a substitute was up front in tears," said Becky Tewalt, a speech therapist who began working at Webster in 2000. "She'd had it."

Fast forward to 2008. Students cheerfully greet their teachers by name, line up quickly, and listen respectfully to each other in class. The endless procession of kids to the principal's office has stopped. White now spends her mornings ranging freely between classrooms to observe teachers and videotaping their best lessons to share.

"It's a changed school, I'm telling you," said Lydia White, no relation to Jennifer, a guidance assistant who has worked 30 years at the school. Her eyes suddenly welled. "They've blossomed. It amazes me."

Teachers chalk up the turnaround to a homegrown program that explicitly teaches students how to behave in class. Building on Buguey's initial efforts to improve discipline, Jennifer White and her teachers crafted the Webster Way, which teaches "scholarly behaviors" such as eye contact, cleaning up your trash, and greeting teachers by name. Such skills are usually expected but not actively taught, White said.

Teachers at Webster devote 10 to 20 minutes daily to role-playing those behaviors and discussing why they matter. Throughout the day, they invoke the Webster Way.

"Schools assume that a student will come in, and just know what to do," school psychologist Steve Franklin said. "At Webster, teaching a student how to be a student is really important. We don't expect them to already know how to read, to do math or write. So why aren't we teaching these things, too?"

It sounds elementary, and hardly radical. Yet the results have been dramatic. Webster has seen suspensions plummet and test scores surge since instilling the Webster Way. Only 10 students were suspended last year. Test scores ranked Webster in the top echelon of demographically similar schools statewide.

Students now flock to the science-themed school. Magnet schools like Webster center their curriculum on a theme and pull students from across the city. In 2003, few students came to Webster from elsewhere; today, half its students have chosen Webster over their neighborhood schools. Educators from Visalia and Los Angeles and even Michigan have visited to see Webster's transformation.

"This is new. This works," said Susie Althof, a kindergarten teacher who has worked 14 years at the school. "And if it can work here, it should be working everywhere."

The Webster Way originated in a school-wide effort to understand poverty and its impact on education. Most teachers at the school are white. Their students are mostly from low-income Latino and black families. Teachers read and reflected together on sociological texts about poverty and the achievement gap, but the Webster Way emerged from their own efforts to observe and document what set their best students apart. They jotted down notes about their highest-achieving students, then pooled their research.

Top achievers, they found, had mastered a behavioral code that equaled school success. They spoke up in class. They balanced when to speak and when to listen. They turned toward the speaker. Those behaviors -- not their brightness -- separated them from their lower-achieving peers and enabled them to absorb information. If the school explicitly taught students those behaviors, White reasoned, wouldn't they do better?

Research on school readiness has largely focused on children's academic skills and how they correlate with their parents' education, said Pamela Davis-Kean, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Children of lawyers, doctors and professors are more likely than their disadvantaged peers to know numbers, letters and hear a wider range of vocabulary before school starts.

"If you're the son of a basketball coach and you start basketball, you understand it better than kids who've never been around the game," explained Ruby Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which Webster teachers read before developing their approach.

Accordingly, efforts to close the achievement gap have traditionally centered on getting disadvantaged kids up to speed academically. But Webster has extended that quest to proactively teaching "soft skills" and behaviors that bolster learning. Other San Diego schools have also focused heavily on behavior, including the Gompers and Keiller charter middle schools, which instituted uniforms and were influenced by the Amistad Academy in New Haven, Conn.

"They don't teach this in any teacher education program," White said. "Too often with behaviors we just tell them" to speak up or not whine. "How do we have an actual classroom lesson around eye contact?"

One method is role-playing. Instead of simply handing down the Webster Way as a list of rules, teachers act out scenarios with their students. Afterward, they encourage students to explore why the rules matter. Before Teri Coker's 1st grade class embarked on a group research project about ladybugs, Coker and the children acted out how to respectfully share the ideas they found in library books. While performing the skit, Coker jokingly announced, "Group, I found a fact!" whenever she discovered a fact about ladybugs.

"Then in the library we actually heard them saying, 'Group, I found a fact!'" Coker said. "We couldn't stop laughing! But look -- it's working!"

Webster's turnaround has dramatic implications about the tools necessary to overcome the achievement gap between kids rich and poor. By proactively teaching behaviors to disadvantaged students, Webster believes it has "decoded" school for low-income kids, freeing school time for learning instead of discipline.

"Nobody had really explained it [to them] before," kindergarten teacher Susie Althof said. "Within a week, the results were dramatic. It was as though a calmness settled on our school. And the children felt acknowledged. They knew what was expected of them, and they were getting positive feedback because of it. And the children just walked with their heads high. Somebody broke the code for them."

That tranquility paved the way for teaching methods that allow students more independence and spur surprisingly intellectual debate among grade schoolers. White urged teachers to increase classroom discussion so that English learners, who make up more than 40 percent of Webster's enrollment, will spend more time talking. Students read and chatter in pairs.

Instead of calling on a single student to answer a question, 3rd grade teacher Jeralyn Treas asked the partnered kids splayed on the rug to discuss what kind of sentences -- declarative or interrogative -- were on their spelling test. The room went abuzz. A minute later, they regrouped.

"I saw a really cool conversation happening -- a discussion -- and I'd like them to fishbowl for us," Treas said. Two girls reenacted their chat, in which they disagree about the answer. After talking with her partner, one girl changed her mind.

"Is she making you think in a different way now?" Treas asked. "Sometimes if someone bullies you with an idea, you think, 'Oh, I've got to defend my answer.' But (she) made it really comfortable, didn't she?"

Kids seem to glory in the Webster Way. In class, they gently correct each other's behaviors. At home, they remember the code. Parent volunteer Angela McPhatter now invokes the Webster Way when counseling her daughter on how to deal with bullies. Vice principal Marisol Marin recalled a truancy hearing where a 2nd grader was asked why he hadn't missed school since transferring to Webster.

"He said, 'They have this Webster Way.' And the truancy officer asked, 'What's the Webster Way?'" Marin said. The child rattled off the rules, startling Marin. "It works because you don't want to disappoint your teacher or yourself. That's better than a piece of licorice or a star, at the end of the day."

Some teachers were initially skeptical, White recalled. One questioned whether the Webster Way was inappropriate for kids who came from cultures that discourage eye contact. It's the one memory that seems to genuinely ruffle White as she describes the program's rollout.

"If you believe any parent would be unhappy, call them and ask," White recalled saying. "Because otherwise, you're perpetuating poverty. My husband the businessman will not hire you in the business world, if you don't make eye contact."

Visitors often tell White, with surprise, that their students are like any other students. That comment lays bare the stereotypes that have dogged schools in southeast San Diego, and the assumption that disadvantaged kids can't surmount their circumstances, White said. They can, she insisted, and with methods like the Webster Way, they will.

Supplemental Information

The Influence of Parent Education and Family Income on Child Achievement: The Indirect Role of Parental Expectations and the Home Environment


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Last modified: September 17, 2004

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