Closing the school-to-prison pipeline
My guest is Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, and a leader of the Forum for Education & Democracy. http://forumforeducation.org/ 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 http://rethinklearningnow.com/principles/fairness/.
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.
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| March 31, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind | Tags: school equity, school to prison pipeline
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