Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 03/31/2010

Closing the school-to-prison pipeline

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, and a leader of the Forum for Education & Democracy. Both non-profit organizations are part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grass-roots initiative designed to restore the focus of education reform on learning, and the core conditions that best support it. In April, the campaign is focusing on the issue of fairness in education. You can listen to a kid-produced CD on the issue, watch a video and do more at

By Judith Browne-Dianis
Every day, too many children in this country unnecessarily lose learning time and, too often, get criminalized for their immature actions. Suspensions are increasingly common for talking out of turn in class, failing to wear uniforms, arriving to school late, and engaging in schoolyard scuffles – denying authoritative adults the opportunity to support and redirect this inappropriate behavior. Worse still, handcuffs have awaited children for participating in food fights, doodling on desks, and engaging in typical five-year-old temper tantrums.

These problems are so expansive that every year, more than 3 million students are suspended, and more than 100,000 are expelled. While the number of arrests nationally is unknown, we do know that in places such as Florida, over 20,000 students enter the juvenile justice system directly from school every year, mostly for misdemeanor offenses. Other states and districts around the country register similarly alarming numbers.

This issue must be on the radar as we advance an agenda to fix our highest-needs schools. Though the public school system is the country’s only institution that prepares the next generation not just for jobs and careers, but also for participation in our democracy, our children’s opportunities to learn are not the same.

Graduation rates are below 40 percent in places such as Detroit and Cleveland, and the national graduation rates for blacks and Latinos hover around 50 percent. It’s clear that education is one of the unfinished pieces of our nation’s civil rights agenda.

Congress will soon consider the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind. Legislators should use this opportunity to address not just resource inequities -- such as funding and the distribution of highly effective teachers -- but also the existence of (and the urgent need to disrupt) the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s time to end the zero tolerance disciplinary approach that has become common in the past two decades. Such policies have not only failed to improve the climate and culture of schools, and have also adversely affected individual academic performance.

Indeed, suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests have been linked in some instances to higher dropout rates, and an increased likelihood that young people will enter the juvenile or criminal justice system. These practices disproportionately affect students of color, yanking away their already fragile window of opportunity to learn and enter college.

To disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, a new federal agenda must include several steps.

First, we must stop tolerating the current national culture of testing, and start investing in a national culture of learning in its wake. The passage of No Child Left Behind ushered in an era where our schools became test factories. The stakes were raised for children, teachers and administrators in the name of accountability. The consequences have been dire, especially for children of color.

In “Test, Punish and Pushout,” a recently released report by Advancement Project, we connect zero tolerance policies to high stakes testing, pointing out that the more our schools have come to rely upon testing, the more they have turned to harsh punishment.

Teachers teach to the test, students become disengaged, and discipline is used to oust the distracted and unprepared students. Test scores may rise as a result, but dropout and incarceration rates will likely rise as well.

In North Carolina, for example, the long-term suspension rate (more than 10 days) increased 135 percent over the first eight years following NCLB’s passage. At the same time, the state’s graduation rate stood at just 63 percent by 2006, with only 45 percent of black students graduating.

As the Forum for Education & Democracy and others have recently pointed out, the federal government can undo this trend by changing its accountability measures, and reducing the myopic reliance upon basic-skills standardized tests as the sole measure of student achievement and school success.

Second, state governments should be ordered to hold their schools and administrators accountable for any over-use of suspensions, expulsions, arrests and referrals to alternative schools.

If we are serious about increasing our college readiness, we cannot toss aside our highest-needs children.

Instead, school districts should be given incentives for reducing these stats, while also increasing graduation rates. Where data indicate that too many of a school’s students are being pushed out through disciplinary measures, states should trigger assistance for the school in the way of grants to implement promising practices to undo the trends.

School districts in need should also be given grants to provide classroom management training and to implement programs that are alternatives to discipline -- such as restorative justice, peer mediation and behavioral support programs.

Despite the challenges ahead, there are myriad places where children are learning in challenging, supportive, democratic learning communities. The change we can believe in mandates that every child be able to attend a school where they are nurtured and receive a high-quality education; this is the civil rights challenge of our day.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | March 31, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  school equity, school to prison pipeline  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Make strong anti-bullying programs mandatory in schools
Next: Teachers fighting back in Florida


The change we can believe in mandates that every child be able to attend a school where they are nurtured and receive a high-quality education.
The change we can believe in is recognizing the problems and dealing with them. Problem number one is in calling poverty schools high need schools.

There is no possibility of spending the billions that would be necessary to address the problems brought upon by poverty. Are Americans or politicians willing to spend perhaps 10 million for a single child that has been damaged by poverty? And even if the 10 millions is spent on one damaged child there is no guarantee that the effort would be successful.

Instead of pretending that every child can be saved from the damages of being poor why not simply attempt early on to start to save all those that can be saved.

On the first day of school many of the poor are ready both in behavior and attitude for obtaining benefits from education.

By middle school many of the same children are no longer willing to learn. They have experienced 5 years of a public school in a poverty area.

At what point do the educational experts recognize this truth and start to implements steps so that the problems do not only get worse as children spend more time in the public schools of poverty areas.

The only change that is possible is by change from day one in the public schools. Accept the children that want to learn and not accept the children that do not want to learn. The dynamics is that by leaving the children that do not want to learn in the same class with the children that want to learn is that as time goes by you have more children that do not want to learn.

As for the educators such as the author who want places where children are nurtured and receive a chance at a high-quality education then they should suggest removing poor children early on from their parents and placing them in state run institutions where the damage of poverty perhaps can be made minimal.

Educators in this nation have to start to be honest and not hide behind platitudes. Everyday children in poverty ares that could be saved are lost because of the platitudes.

Do educators in this country want to save the ones that can be saved or simply be smug with their meaningless platitudes?

Posted by: bsallamack | March 31, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher at an alternative school, I can say that behavior has significantly worsened over the last decade. I do not know if "testing" is to blame, but I do feel that federal laws regarding "least restrictive environment" have tied the hands of administrators to give meaningful discipline and consequences to students. Disciplining any student with an IEP (particulary those with the worst behavioral and emotional problems) is very very difficult especially if the parent is not involved.

Walk into any urban school and you would be amazed at the horrible language the kids use. It is just a sign of their poor behavior and disrespect for staff.

Posted by: quiktake | March 31, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. We just left an elementary school the principal operates as a school-to-prison pipeline. I began to notice that many more children were getting office referrals. My own well-behaved children received several last year. I was concerned because as a volunteer in this school for over a decade, I had worked with struggling students and those with few resources. These kids were good kids. I never saw any misbehavior in the classrooms. But the teachers and administration talked about escalating poor behavior. They would drop comments about behavior, etc. But I never saw it myself. The kids all seemed to be well-behaved. I was very good friends with our bus driver, who became like a member of our family. She never had any problems on the bus that she couldn't handle with love and respect for the kids. When she retired, the new bus driver let the kids go wild.

Then my eyes began to really open. I talked with parents who testified that their child got office referrals for WHISPERING on silence in the cafeteria, for failing to walk in a straight line in the hallway, for turning around in the hallway to talk to a friend, for taking too long in the bathroom, for DROPPING A PENCIL during a test and making too much noise scooting the chair back to pick it up. However, bullies who bloodied noses on the playground and punched little girls were OFF THE HOOK. The victims sometimes got the office referrals. Also, the parents who complained about the frivolous office referrals were retaliated against with more office referrals for their child.

My own children received a couple of ISS for very minor infractions.

Then I noticed a pattern. That kids were being sent to the principals' office mainly during reading block. It was like the teachers provoked the kids to act out during reading so she could write them up and send them out of the classroom. Then I discovered that if a child misses a certain number of instructional hours, the school does not have to give them the SOL test in that subject. That was an aha moment.

How would you feel if you are an "innocent" child made to feel like a criminal constantly? Bullied by teachers and principals. No support at home. No support at school. Would your behavior improve?

This is the root of most of the behavior problems in our schools. Yes it is connected to NCLB testing. Children are being abused and bullied, not so much by peers, but from top down.

Another thing I discovered, but the media will not investigate, is that one of our attendance office social workers was recently hired from Poplar Springs Hospital (mental hospital). She still works there part-time, and our district refers students to that hospital. This is a clear conflict of interest. Now we have the school-to-mental-institution pipeline!

Posted by: concerned36 | March 31, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

It sounds as if what concerned36 is saying is that teachers and administrators are upping the odds that test scores are going to be high and doing that by making some students pay with their futures. I would like to learn more about this. Can someone point me in the right direction. Comment here with a place to start researching. Thanks,

Posted by: maryellenpecci | April 1, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Here's an idea from a high school teacher:

How about we stop using our schools as prisons?

Do you know how many juvenile offenders your child is locked in the same building with day in and day out? How they are ONLY in school as part of their probation?

Posted by: someguy100 | April 1, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Then I noticed a pattern.

Posted by: concerned36 | March 31, 2010 11:56 PM
How many parents or Americans recognize a pattern in public schools in poverty areas where 56 percent of children in the 4th grade fail basic reading skills and are simply passed on to the next grade?

The 56 percent come from the national reading test of 2009 for the poverty ridden schools of DC.

The DC school system pretends at improvement but simply passes every child onto the next grade.

The problems of public schools in poverty areas are apparent early on while nothing is done with the pattern of simply ignoring the problems and passing on failing children to the next grade.

56 percent fail in reading in the 4th grade and the federal government pretends that these children that can not read will be helped by "teaching to the test".

Is the DC school system separating early on the students with problems? Great Britain tests every child when they enter public schools. Are there plans to deal with the large number of failures instead of just passing them on?

Public schools in poverty areas will not improve until it recognized that the epidemic problems that are apparent early on are dealt with. Failure rates of 56 percent in the 4th grade can not be fixed in the middle schools and the high schools. It is no surprise that with a failure rate of 56 percent in reading in the 4th grade that so many do not graduate high school. It is almost a miracle at the number of the few that do graduate.

The public schools in poverty areas may not be a pipeline to prison but they certainly are a pipeline to nowhere.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 1, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

One more thing, evidence was found that a district in California was accepting funding for each student it referred into the juvenile corrections system. What a perverse incentive?!

Posted by: concerned36 | April 1, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid you have a misspelling in your post. That should read NC not DC. I work for a large school district in NC and from what I've seen the number of students being suspended is not near what it would be if schools followed their own policies. Mrs. Browne-Dianes post is sheer foolishness. When did families abdicate their responsibility to raise their children and hand it over to the schools? Children who commit crimes at school should be reported to the police and arrested and I would advise any parent whose child is in public school to call the police if a crime had been committed against their child. The truth is that this liscense to misbehave is driveing our schools down and resegregating them as parents who can afford look into other options besides traditional public schools.

Posted by: THEFIREDOG | April 1, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company