Two-thirds of U.S. teachers say discipline policies are inconsistently enforced in their schools, and 38% attribute a decline in suspensions to “higher tolerance for misbehavior,” according to the results of a survey released Tuesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Teachers in high-poverty schools were also more likely than those in low-poverty schools to report that during the 2017-18 school year, they were either physically attacked by a student, that physical fighting occurred in their school every day or week, or that they dealt with verbal disrespect every day.
The survey draws responses from a sample of 1,200 teachers participating in the RAND Corp.’s American Educator Panels and is part of the conservative-leaning institute’s efforts to raise concerns over “top-down” efforts to reduce suspensions. They conclude that teachers want multiple options, including newer discipline models and traditional approaches.
“Because sensibly balancing the interests of a minority of students against those of the majority is impossible from hundreds or thousands of miles away, federal and state policymakers should think twice before wading into the moral bracken of school discipline,” the authors write, adding that such policies can undermine school leaders’ authority and increase “the incentive to engage in underreporting.”
“More often than not, administrators sweep incidents under the rug and don't report them,” said one teacher who left an optional comment. “The more they report, the worse it makes the school look."
California, Colorado and Texas are among states that have moved to limit suspensions, particularly in the early grades. And recent studies have linked suspension and expulsion to later drug use and delinquency.
But the survey findings also come in the midst of shifts — and somewhat contradictory reports — in how schools are responding to student behavior. For example, on one hand, the survey draws attention to efforts to reduce suspensions, but last week the U.S. Commission on Civil Right released data showing that during the 2015-16 school year, 2.7 million public school students received at least one out-of-school suspension.
In another example, the Trump Administration last year rescinded Obama-era guidance intended to reduce racial disproportionality in school discipline. But the Fordham report notes that nine states are still using suspension and/or expulsion rates as part of their school accountability systems, and that 20 states and the District of Columbia use such rates when deciding on school improvement efforts.
African American teachers weigh in
Because data shows black students and students in poverty are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white or middle-class peers, Fordham oversampled African American teachers and those working in high-poverty schools. Black teachers were far more likely to respond that discipline consequences are harsher for black students — 77% compared to 24% of white teachers.
But their views on whether schools should still be suspending students were more similar.
Half of African American teachers in high-poverty schools responded that out-of-school suspension is not used enough, compared to 46% of white teachers. Thirty-four percent of both groups said it was used the right amount. Thirty-one percent of black teachers and 35% of white teachers said they recommended that a student be suspended during the 2017-18 school year.
More than three-fourths of all teachers surveyed agreed with the statement that other students suffer because of a “few persistent troublemakers,” and 64% said they felt there were students with chronic discipline problems that should not be in their class.
The authors recommend that policymakers “rely on teachers’ and administrators’ professional judgment” when it comes to whether to suspend a student.
Some experts say policies to reduce suspensions haven’t gone far enough.
“But efforts must always also be accompanied by the use of approaches that reduce the likelihood of behaviors that teachers find troubling as well as ways of addressing problematic behaviors,” said David Osher, a vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
Social-emotional learning programs for teachers and students, enhancing teachers’ "cultural competency," and providing access to mental health services are among the approaches that he said should be in place when suspension is not an option.
Alternative discipline approaches
The authors of the Fordham report, David Griffith and Adam Tyner, also call for hiring more teaching assistants and mental health professionals and say schools should spend funds on additional personnel rather than “training teachers in largely unproven alternatives that may do more harm than good.” Forty percent of teachers in the survey also agreed that hiring more mental health professionals would be the best use of additional funds for addressing student behavior.
The survey also included questions for teachers on alternative models, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), restorative practices and trauma-informed practices. Eighty-one percent of teachers responded that restorative justice approaches are at least “somewhat effective,” with 36% choosing “very effective” as an option, and 87% said that PBIS, which focuses on establishing schoolwide behavior expectations and rewarding good behavior, is somewhat or very effective.
The authors feature comments from teachers on their perceptions of such approaches. One said, “PBIS and other ‘huggy’ programs are great for some kids and can really benefit them,” but the teacher also said those approaches can lead “to a lot of ambiguity regarding whether or not a consequence will be implemented.”
And while some said they think restorative justice doesn’t work and teaches students they can get away with misbehaving, one respondent wrote: “I am an advocate for the use of restorative practices, restitution and prevention techniques. I oppose suspensions and believe that no student should be ‘thrown away.’ These are children, and they need our support, not a punishment.”
‘Not easy work’
Osher said when implementing restorative justice programs, it’s important to “build the motivation and capacity of teachers,” especially if they are working with culturally and linguistically diverse students.
“Practice change is not easy … for professionals who are set in ways or are unaware of the effect of biases on their thinking,” he said. “This is not easy work and should include ongoing professional development and support.”
Griffith and Tyner cite older research showing that turnover is higher among white teachers in high-poverty schools than it is among black teachers. They suggest that “as a group, they may be less experienced, and their classroom management skills, as well as their relationships with students and parents, may be weaker.”
These reasons, instead of implicit bias, might contribute to suspension rates, they said, but also added that “it’s certainly possible that white teachers are (on average) more biased.”
Osher noted AIR’s Concerns-Based Adoption Model, which focuses on understanding staff members’ attitudes and beliefs when trying to implement a new program.
Elizabeth Smull, a lecturer at the International Institute for Restorative Practices, says that when trainers for the organization’s SaferSanerSchools program work with schools, they stress that everyone who comes in contact with students, including cafeteria staff and bus drivers, for example, participate in initial overview sessions.
“We really encourage that everyone in the building has a role to play in the implementation,” Smull said, adding that even after two and a half years of work, schools are still in the early stages of the program. The institute has recently provided training to schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
A RAND Corp. evaluation of a Pittsburgh Public Schools program based on SaferSanerSchools found having district- and school-level leaders who take ownership of the program and model the practices can lead to more positive effects.
The results of the program were mixed. In addition to a decrease in suspensions for black students, the program was associated with an increase in attendance among elementary students and those in special education. Teachers also said they had improved relationships with students.
But school mobility rates did not drop, and math performance declined among middle-schoolers and among both black and white students in majority-black schools. Teachers also didn’t find that the program was improving student behavior.
Views on in-school suspension
The Fordham survey also asked teachers about in-school suspension programs. Teachers said in-school suspension is more effective than out-of-school suspension for removing disruptive students so others can learn (25% compared to 11%), and especially for helping misbehaving students to stay on-track academically (58% compared to 3%).
But comments from teachers suggested such in-school programs don’t always work as intended.
“A joke,” and “ineffective” were two descriptions that teachers gave of the programs in their schools, suggesting that students are often not held accountable for schoolwork. One teacher offered this recommendation: “I think lunchtime detention without electronics is much more effective than any in- or out-of-school suspension. Students lose socialization time and phone time. Both are highly coveted by teenagers.”
Osher said in-school suspension programs should be “student- and learning-centered, not informed by a punitive mentality.” He highlighted the Planning Centers in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio as an effective model.
Others include Alternatives to Suspension, a week-long program with a restorative practices curriculum, as well as some schoolwork from students’ regular classes.
Griffith and Tyner advocate for more alternative centers with mental health professionals. “Rather than bouncing back and forth between a regular classroom and an ill-functioning [in-school suspension] (or the street), students with chronic behavior problems should be connected with the services they need in whatever setting is best suited to the task,” they write.
A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, shows alternative schools already serve a higher proportion of black boys and boys with disabilities than other student groups, and are less likely than regular schools to have support staff members, including counselors and social workers.
Charter alternative schools were less likely than district alternative schools to have support staff members. Administrators of these schools told GAO that many students they serve have experienced trauma, including abuse, a death in the family, or leaving a conflict zone in another country.
The teacher survey follows other efforts at the Fordham Institute to draw attention to the challenges surrounding discipline policies. In May, Michael Petrilli, president of the organization, participated in a Milliken Dialogues and Policy Summit with representatives from Communities in Schools to discuss the federal role in making sure discipline policies don’t violate students’ civil rights.
At that event, Gallup data was released showing that Americans have wide-ranging opinions on whether they think educators are adequately trained to handle discipline issues in the classroom. More than half — 54% — responded that teachers are unprepared or very unprepared to respond to students’ behavior problems, while 43% said that teachers are either prepared or very prepared.
A large share of the respondents, however, did not think that stricter disciplinary practices, including detention, suspensions or expulsions, would be effective, and a large majority — 89% — agreed increasing access to mental health services in schools would be an effective or very effective way to improve discipline.