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Thompson: Let's Talk About Expulsion Rates, Charter & Otherwise

Charter-school-disciplineIn “D.C. Charter Schools Expel Students at Far Higher Rates than Traditional Public Schools,” the Washington Post's Emma Brown reports that D.C.'s charters expel up to seventy times as many students as its traditional schools.   Charters expelled or longterm suspended 554 students, while traditional schools expelled or thus suspended 601 students.  (Charters serve 41% of D.C’s students.)

Brown quotes conservative school reformer Mike Petrilli, who argues that charters should not have to obey “a policy that says that schools’ hands are tied if they have kids who are disrupting the learning environment.” A parent of five Kippsters agrees, “When I send my children to school, when I walk off and I wave goodbye and I hug them and I look back at them, I want to know that my child is safe.”

But only 1/4thof the charter expulsions were due to violence, weapons, alcohol or drugs, and nearly half of those students then enrolled in traditional schools (while a third did not enroll elsewhere.)  

By now, the soundbite that charters serve "the same students," has been repudiated. That calls into question the claims about some charters outperforming traditional schools.  But, D.C. provides only modest evidence for the charge that charters "push out" students who are more challenging. Brown’s article clearly provides more evidence about the “culture of compliance” of district central offices, which has crippled their ability to maintain safe and orderly schools.  For instance, D.C. often relies on “involuntary transfers” for fighting and other dangerous behaviors.

On the other hand, it is hard to say who is to blame. In D.C., a student cannot be suspended for more than ten days without the approval of an administrative law judge.  When everyone involved – principals, teachers, families and, above all, students - know that it is virtually impossible to follow through with longterm suspensions, then it is harder to draw the line regarding smaller infractions.  It becomes far more difficult to teach challenging kids how to become students.  Consequently, shuttling discipline problems to other schools becomes a rational response.

Being a high school teacher, I always duck the tough questions, such as those raised by the article, about suspending elementary students.  I was intrigued, however, by Brown's example of a charter high school student's expulsion. She came to school intoxicated, also engaged in a verbal insubordination, and then pulled the fire alarm.  This seems to fit the dominant pattern which I have observed.  The issue is not the incident that brings a student before a longterm or expulsion hearing.  The issue is the infraction within the context of the student's overall record.  This senior transferred to a traditional school and she earned a college scholarship. But, the scholarship due to the help she received from the charter.

On the other hand, the paperwork involved in documenting students' patterns of misbehavior, and monitoring the resulting interventions, can become overwhelming in the most troubled schools.  Due process procedures that are reasonable in low-poverty schools can look very different in schools serving intense concentrations of traumatized students.  And, the clerical overload that follows contributes to the "culture of compliance," where traditional public school leaders twist themselves into pretzels to avoid drawing a line in regard to outrageous behavior.

That being said, only twenty D.C. schools, serving less than 10,000 students, had double digit suspensions in excess of ten days. Had the time and effort that has been expended in largely unsuccessful instruction-driven efforts been invested in improving schools' learning climates, we might be seeing greater improvements in troubled schools. 

Finally, the charge that charters "push out" troubled students is a very serious one.  It questions educators' integrity and it should require a great deal of evidence. Charter advocates mostly set high standards because they sincerely believe that that is the best path to the greater good for the greater number of students.  When students leave because they cannot meet those standards, charter educators see that as a defeat – not a method of making their statistics look better.

As Brown reports, some charters with “zero tolerance” policies allow expulsion for repeated, minor nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or violating dress codes. I oppose those policies. I prefer "restorative justice" and other non-punitive ways of creating orderly environments.  Having experience with the anarchy that often comes from the refusal of systems to enforce their codes of conduct, however, I can understand why some charters have gone too far the other way.    

Some charter supporters have slandered educators in traditional schools. They should stop implying that it is "low expectations" that causes the disorder which undermines teaching and learning. But if we do unto them what has been done unto neighborhood school teachers, and charge charters with intentionally pushing out students, we will lose the opportunity to discuss better ways of building respectful learning climates.  We will reinforce the impression that neighborhood schools will never become serious about raising behavioral standards, and hasten the day when traditional urban schools are merely the alternative schools for the students who could not make it in charters, magnets, or low-poverty schools.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

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This is what these types of discussions should be: honest,nuanced, and reluctant to engage in name-calling.

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