Prep Schools for Prison



Perhaps a place to start in changing the pipeline-to-prison phenomenon is with teachers' emotional responses to their students. You know, Alfie Kohn has been talking about the dangers of punitive classroom management strategies for at least a couple of decades, but, alas, history does appear to perpetually repeat itself. I just read an article by a professor named Russ Skiba called "Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline" that pretty much says what Kohn said in books like Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline: getting tough on disruptive students does not solve the problem of disruptive students. In fact, "exclusionary discipline" tends to exacerbate the problem.

That is (the article states), schools that are most effective with their zero tolerance policies (meaning they often expel and suspend troublesome students) "have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests." The part about racial disparity is especially interesting and important. According to Skiba's article, black students are particularly affected by "exclusionary discipline": while black students were suspended twice as much as white students in the 1970s, black students are now suspended THREE AND A HALF TIMES as much as white students under zero tolerance rules.

(It appears that being African American in school cannot be tolerated.)

What really struck me as I was reading this article was that, after the first paragraph or so, I was reminded of an NPR story I caught on the radio on Monday about solitary confinement in prisons. Apparently, the head of a prison somewhere put himself into "the hole" to experience what so many prisoners experience. I don't think he made it in solitary for 24 hours before deciding that he was going to change that policy in his prison. It's simply inhumane.

So what I was thinking while reading Skiba's article was "Hey! 'Exclusionary discipline' feels like another version of solitary confinement." And, lo and behold, a few paragraphs down I read, "...being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color."

Right. Zero tolerance schools are like prep schools for prison.

(Click on that school-to-prison pipeline link. The statistics are OUTRAGEOUS.)

Because it exposed such noxious effects of punitive classroom management, especially for students of color, I really liked Skiba's article. It ended with a list of nine things teachers can do to achieve balanced discipline and, while I can't stand the implication in so many writings about education that teaching is simply a matter of following a list of procedural to-dos, his list isn't bad.

Only, once again, the to-do list is focused on students. "Do this with or to your students." "Teach your students to do this." All well and good. Students do need to learn how to exercise self-restraint and take responsibility for their actions. These are appropriate and crucial objectives for any educational system.

But here's a fact that really deserves to be examined: "Disruptive," "troublesome," and "problematic" are in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder of students is the teacher. Wouldn't it make sense to talk to teachers about their perceptions of disruption? What one teacher can call "trouble" might look like "feistiness" or a "cry for help" to another. Might the first step in managing classrooms be teachers' management of their own fear and anxiety when faced with students they deem "problematic"?

Might classroom management start with personal emotional management on the part of the teachers? What do you think?