by Taylor Nachtigal
in the Rochester Post-Bulletin on Thursday, May 12, 2016
Twenty years ago, when a student was disruptive in a classroom, there was a fair chance she would be asked to leave, with orders to head to the office.
Nowadays, teachers are working to cut back on those office referrals, in an effort to keep students in the classroom and learning.
In the last decade, in Rochester, and statewide, discipline strategies have shifted away from reactive discipline, — like office referrals, suspensions and expulsions — which were reinforced by zero-tolerance policies, toward more “restorative” policies focused on encouraging positive behavior on the front end.
After tracking the results of zero-tolerance policies, results showed they were conclusively devastating for students of color and created discipline disparities — so these new policies are focus on addressing just that.
“We have to change how we engage with students and parents,” said Anthony Muhammad, an equity consultant Rochester Public Schools brought in this week to talk about disparities in education and discipline. “If we don’t change how we operate, we’ll have the same problem and we’ll be talking about it in 20 years from now.”
Proponents of policies like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, say they proactively teach appropriate behaviors, rather than punishing students after the fact. Bad behavior is approached using an “instructional response,” so that students learn why what they did was wrong, and so they understand what behavior expectations are throughout the building.
The goal is to directly address student behavior, because without doing so, “the likelihood of that behavior changing is not real great,” Kloos said. “What can we do to help change that behavior? As opposed to removal with no action, which doesn’t tend to change behavior.”
New policy is more fair
Another result, supporters say, is fairer discipline policies, because there is less room for subjectivity in discipline. Educators and researchers have found when there’s room for subjectivity, students of color are disproportionately disciplined, said Josh Crosson, advocacy manager with MinnCAN, a state education research and advocacy group.
“At the end of the day, Minnesota is pushing kids of color and kids with disabilities out of class disproportionately and that’s creating a huge achievement gap,” Crosson said.
The end goal is make discipline more consistent, said Eric Kloos, Minnesota’s PBIS state coordinator. The hope is that these new policies will also help pinpoint reasons for disparities through data collection.
This fall, Rochester Public Schools’ discipline disparity was highlighted when it entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It revealed black students were disciplined at a rate nearly three times their population.
During the 2014-15 school year, black students made up 39 percent of all in-school suspensions, while they are only 14 percent of the population. Hispanic students accounted for 15 percent of in-school suspensions, but make up just 9 percent of the population.
Statewide, the numbers mirror that. And it gets worse for subjective, vaguely defined discipline categories, Crosson said, like disruptive behavior, insubordination and defiance.
Since the 1970s, concerns about rising school violence expanded the purview of school discipline, resulting in zero-tolerance policies — much of which are rooted in criminal law — according to Jennifer Earley, an attorney who specializes in school law.
These policies were meant to reduce the number of violent incidents in schools, but resulted in “unintended consequences,” like disproportionate discipline, after the policy parameters were widened from just violent and drug offenses, to include other behavioral issues.
After much research, we’ve learned they don’t work, Crosson said.
“…it is increasingly clear that some policies intended to maintain safety and order not only have failed to do so but have caused considerable harm,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in the American Educator journal.
A 2009 Minnesota Department of Education report came to a similar conclusion.
“Suspension and expulsion as interventions are inadequate to change behavior unless they are paired with teaching replacement behaviors,” it concluded. “Thus, suspensions and expulsions have, for the most part, the opposite educational outcome than that intended by school administrators and teachers.”
“Education systems across the United States struggle to find effective methods to decrease issues such as bullying, truancy, violence, and underlying behavioral problems without leading to the criminalization of school-related behaviors.”
Groups like “Solutions Not Suspensions” have sprung up, in an attempt to curb discipline that removes students from the classroom.
“There certainly has been a growing base of research around behavioral practices, especially the impact of a more positive approach to that, instead of the negative punitive approaches,” Kloos said.
But some caution against using PBIS as the ‘be all end all’ solution.
“Everyone wants to throw PBIS out there,” said Marika Pfefferkorn, co-chair of the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition. “It’s a tool, it’s not the answer. We see a lot of people not applying it with fidelity.”
Others say it’s doesn’t offer a lot of solutions for dealing with students with repeated behavioral problems, because you don’t want to remove them from the classroom, but they often disrupt other students’ learning.
“That’s our quandary,” said Kelly Wright-Glynn, a 6th grade teacher at Willow Creek and teacher’s union board member.
Becoming a PBIS district
While Rochester began its transition to becoming a PBIS district in 2007, and it was district-wide last year, but all the schools are at varying points of implementing the system.
Minnesota began having conversations about implementing PBIS in 2004, Kloos said, but his team soon discovered there wasn’t a consistent approach to discipline across the state.
“Consistency really offers great promise,” Kloos said. “But it’s difficult to do because it takes the commitment of everyone in schools.” Now, Kloos said, the focus is on a more “instructional response,” involving the student to change the behavior.
Many groups, including the Minnesota Department of Education, are pushing for legislation this session to expand its reach. When Gov. Mark Dayton announced his education priorities for the legislative session in March, funding for the implementation of PBIS made the list. He touted the data-driven program as one that promotes an “improvement in student behavior, especially for students with challenging social behaviors,” and recommended a $2.75 million investment.
Since its launch in 2005, it has “spread” across Minnesota and is currently about 28 percent of Minnesota’s schools are trained or will be in training to implement PBIS policies, according to Josh Collins, director of communications for MDE. Six states have passed legislation around changing school discipline, according to American Educator, an education journal published by the American Federation of Teachers, the national teacher’s union.
“We’re cutting ground in a new way,” Kloos said. “We don’t have another decade.”