The following is a guest blog post by Alex Medler (@AlexLMedler), Senior Director for the National Charter Schools Resource Center. As part of NACSA’s 2015 annual survey, we invited peers to respond to the data and share related authorizing practices. We encourage you to explore the full release Authorizing Data in Depth: School Discipline and our corresponding report “Authorizers are Not Monolithic on School Discipline.”
Much of the conflict over school discipline stems from whether you treat student discipline as a school practice or a student outcome. Discipline has parts of both. We should treat the parts differently. The charter concept has two related assumptions: autonomy and accountability. Like most aspects of schooling, charter schools should have autonomy to control their disciplinary practices while authorizers should hold them accountable for disciplinary outcomes.
Many disciplinary actions are simultaneously a practice and an outcome. Charter leaders need the autonomy to select and implement their preferred approach to discipline. Authorizers should honor this school-level autonomy, while also tracking and responding to undesirable student outcomes, including a school’s record of expulsions and suspensions.
Discipline practices are an important part of how schools are run. Charters require autonomy and use it to implement their approach to school culture. In fact, building and sustaining a school culture can be one of the most important tasks in a charter schools’ efforts to achieve its vision and mission. Many observers have commented on the need for school-level autonomy in this area. You can see and read about schools following this path via materials recently released by the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC).
The aspects of discipline that are better considered student outcomes, meanwhile, are what need more attention from authorizers. When all is said and done, a 17-year old on the street—whether they dropped out or were expelled—is not learning. And a child falls behind whether they stay home to play video games or are sent home by the Assistant Principal.
Arguably, many expelled students are worse off than students who voluntarily leave. Some expelled high school students will not reenroll. Those that try to enroll elsewhere may discover that the next school can refuse them because of their past. When they are given another option, it may be an alternative program/warehouse and dropout mill. This reality makes it easy to counsel out students by threatening to expel them if they don’t dropout or transfer “voluntarily,” which can make the distinction between expulsion and dropping out even more muddy.
Suspension is also tricky. It would help if authorizers understood the details about each school’s suspensions, such as the nature of the offenses, as well as the length, frequency, and consequences for learning. Suspensions can be considered as analogous to health-related truancy. When your child wakes up with a fever, staying home helps them get better and protects their classmates. But a student who misses a lot of school for health reasons is likely to fall behind. Schools have a responsibility to figure out how to support their learning.
Like staying home for 24 hours after a fever, a single suspension may be an effective strategy for a particular event (both for the sake of a suspended child and his or her classmates). This is especially true for events that pose serious problems for the learning environment and that are combined with an intensive effort to understand the root of the issue that caused the child’s removal. But frequent removal leads to situations in which a student is missing too much school. These situations could be due to the school’s failure to identify or address the students’ specific, long-term, and serious needs. They could also be due to problems with the teacher’s classroom management or his or her ability to develop relationships with students. Situations where students are regularly subject to these interruptions and failing to be served should be a serious red flag for anyone overseeing the quality of a school.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recently released sobering survey data indicating that a minority of authorizers don’t think they are responsible for tracking, reporting, or holding schools accountable for discipline. In the NACSA survey, 23 percent of authorizers explained that they don’t believe in setting performance measures for suspension or expulsion. Twenty-two percent don’t believe in using such measures to hold schools accountable. Only 42 percent of responding authorizers publicly report discipline data for their schools, and 26 percent publicly report disaggregated data on the topic. Given the historical record of disproportionate application of exclusionary disciplines in charter and district run schools, these authorizer practices are disturbing.
Many authorizers do acknowledge they have responsibilities through their actions. They already include data on dropout and truancy rates in their performance frameworks and consider this information when judging charter schools. Authorizers should similarly consider expelled students and those subject to repeated or long-term suspensions.
Authorizers also need to understand disciplinary outcomes if they are to understand a schools’ quality. While counterintuitive, NACSA’s own Karega Rausch, has pointed out that frequent use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion is associated with lower rates of success. These exclusionary disciplinary practices can be indicators of schools in trouble. Meanwhile, a school’s other performance data, including test scores, may improve after the school expels lower-performing students or they drop out. Charter opponents certainly try to over-simplify the issue by framing discipline practices as test-score-inflating strategies. Authorizers should want to know more about the disciplinary actions of the schools they oversee to better understand this relationship.
It is important to remember that data on discipline is messy. Many students that are counted as dropping out in one school would have been expelled in another. And a “single suspension” in the data can mean very different things in different contexts. Authorizers should track and consider both the number of dropouts and expulsions, rather than thinking these are entirely separate issues. And they should understand what the available data really means. While it is unlikely that disciplinary data alone will drive renewal decisions, it can enhance other data or provide a red flag for further examination.
Learning to treat discipline as both a school practice and a student outcome is not simple. Authorizers have to work out the details as they balance accountability and autonomy. But this is the kind of thing the charter sector has been working on in other areas for 25 years. I am confident that people working in schools and authorizing shops will continue to make progress in this area. It will help if we understand all the ways we should think about student discipline.