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Thompson: Charter Fines & Expulsions Create Dysfunctional System

FinesRecent coverage on excessive disciplinary actions in charter schools in the Chicago Catalyst and the Washington Post  should prompt soul searching for educators in both charter and neighborhood schools. One of the original purposes of charter schools was pushing the educational status quo to think anew. Traditionally, attendance and behavior were the third rail of school politics, and urban schools were especially loathe to address disciplinary issues. Poor secondary schools were caught in a Catch 22, where they were not allowed to enforce their codes of conduct because there was no place to put chronic offenders. But districts refused to invest in alternative schools because educators, who were continually complaining about chaos in their buildings, would supposedly kick the difficult students out.  My hope was that reality-based policies, such as allowing charters to build respectful learning cultures, could then be extended to neighborhood schools in the inner city. Boy, was I wrong!

We now have the tiered system that central office administrators feared. Charter schools can enforce their academic, attendance, and behavioral standards because they have the ultimate alternative system for handling the students who are emotionally incapable of meeting those expectations. It is called neighborhood schools.

Even as the proliferation of choice increased the burdens on neighborhood schools by dumping the tougher-to-educate kids on us, I have been reluctant to criticize charters. After all, the stricter standards that helped charter teachers also liberated their students from the anarchy of neighborhood schools.

Although I question the "No Excuses" schools' approach to discipline, I admire their commitment to teaching students to be students. As long as adults respect the autonomy of students, and remain sensitive to their senses of fairness, I can remain hopeful that the best charters can be models for creating the cultures necessary for deep learning. Consequently, I have been slow to judge charters that were accused of using harsh discipline to push low achieving kids out. Boy, was I naive!

Catalyst reports that charters in that city have been assessing detention and fines for having their shoes untied or failing to sit up, make proper eye contact, and articulate clearly. Chicago’s Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy averaged 16 detentions per student in 2010-11 and collected an average of $80 per student in fines.

I am as "old school" as they come in terms of discipline, but I cannot believe that any system can work without respecting the students’ sense of justice and I cannot believe that such a punitive regime could pass teens’ smell test. In my experience, most students demand stricter discipline and resent their peers who interfere with their learning.  But they also care deeply for their classmates who may be less successful in overcoming adversity.  For instance, when a kid brings family stresses to school and lets it interfere with new and uncomfortable classroom behaviors (like not averting eyes in an effort to avoid conflict) and is further punished, it is hard to believe that most classmates would buy into such a verdict. More likely, in schools admitting the full spectrum of students, older teens would see it as a tactic to push out their less successful peers.

I have never taught in a Chicago charter, and I understand their desire to build a unique sense of identity, so when I first read of the fines, I bit my tongue. But, Bill Turque of the Washington Post now reports that a D.C. charter, Friendship Collegiate Academy-Woodson, expelled 8% of its students. Another Friendship charter suspended 35% of its students for ten or more days.

And not being an elementary teacher, I did not voice reservations when the Post’s Donna St. George documents the seemingly excessive suspensions of small children in the D.C. Public Schools where 192 preschool, first graders were suspended. But D.C. charters had 434 "suspension incidences"of those groups of small children.

I am always reluctant to criticize my brethren in charters, and I still hope that educators in choice and neighborhood schools can band together to push for reality-based policies for creating respectful learning cultures for all students.  We will not be allowed to do so, however, until we convince stakeholders that our calls for discipline are not punitive.  So, we must unite and condemn abuses such "zero tolerance" and arresting students for misbehavior that should receive consequences from the school.  The time has also come to condemn excessive use of fines and suspensions for young children.-JT (@drjohnthompson)Image via.


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Here in San Francisco -- which is probably somewhat different from Oklahoma City in a few ways -- there's constant scrutiny of the racial breakdown of students who are disciplined. One reason that public schools are very touchy about enforcement is that they'll be immediately challenged -- and vilified -- if discipline is meted out disproportionately to African-American and Latino students. (In one case, one African-American student's complaint about one incident of discipline very nearly got a well-liked and successful administrator fired, till mass community protest got the decision revoked.)

Charter schools are likely exempt from that entire thorny situation because 1) they're more segregated; and 2) they're coated in multiple layers of Teflon.


Its the same story here, although there is probably more jstification of the scrutiny in OKC. We're #3 in incarcerating men and #1in the world in incarcerating women, and we have a long long history of oppression. So, people are wary of numbers that look out of order. I want to be clear. My complaint against data-driven civil rights protections against disciplinary abuses is NOT based on wanting to protect adults. If somethhing is worth doing - and protecting against abuses is certainly worth doing - then it is worth doing right, which, at minimum, means data-informed oversight. Nuumbers, alone, tell you nothing. And our unwritten quotas damage the offenders who are equally deserving of fairness. When schools can't enforce their rules, the anarchy hurts the students most. And when schools aren't allowed to enforce rules, the temptation is to criminalize misbehavior. I've seen it dozens of time. A principal doesn't feel empowered to work a referral, so he or she has the offender arrested or ticketed so the data will be on someone else.

Have you seen Dr. Nadine Burke's work in Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on health and behavioral issues? Google if not.

I suggest you would need to evaluate whole school performance and environment to determine the impact and ethics of fines. I'll also point out that Noble in Chicago has grown rapidly to serve 5% of public high school students with strong evidence of consistent high performance. They are adding two high schools a year in Chicago.
It seems we should be seriously interested in figuring out how Noble got it right.
I believe fines could be misused, but are not inherently wrong. Caroline's point regarding adverse childhood experience seems valid, but does not necessary apply to fines or suspension. It's all about the context of these specific tools.

I've een shouting from the rooftops that schools must heed Dr. Burke's work. Thanks for helping to bring attention to it.

Don, I agree and disagree about the context of specific tools. Ordinarily I would say that fines are inherently wrong, although that's not what I'd recommend. The problem occurs when fines and other stern measures can be used to push out low-performing students. So, while I think systems go way too far in tying the hands of neighborhood schools thus making it impossible to have respectful learning cultures, it is time for charters to put some contraints on themselves, or districts will need to do it for them.

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