Put the Last Nails in the Coffin of Zero Tolerance

Tonight, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board will consider a so-called final draft of a Behavior Education Plan for possible adoption with proposed implementation in the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.  Consistent with the 3 prior drafts, about which I have reported previously, this version goes a long way to end antiquated zero tolerance discipline policies in Madison, if the Board adopts it.

The school board will consider the new plan after it decides whether to expel my client from school for 1 1/2 years as originally proposed by Superintendent Jen Cheatham, and ultimately adopted by the expulsion hearing officer after a nearly 5 hour grueling hearing. This case has received significant media attention as an instance of zero tolerance run amok, since my client made the only behavioral mistake she has ever made in her nearly 10 years of public school education in Madison by succumbing to peer pressure and bringing a small amount of alcohol in a water bottle to school, and giving a small amount to a friend (neither of whom drank any of it).  Fortunately, Superintendent Cheatham has subsequently recommended that the School Board apply the proposed Behavior Education Plan to pending expulsions for the remainder of this year, under which my client would not have been expelled.

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Thus, the MMSD School board has multiple opportunities tonight to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance and shift the school district’s focus to the far more appropriate education of its children when misbehavior happens.  However, prior to the vote, it is important to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the final draft.

In terms of strengths, the final draft makes quite clear that, as Superintendent Cheatham’s introductory message states,

  • zero-tolerance policies that result in frequent removal from school are ineffective in changing student behavior and in fact have  negative impact on student outcomes–lower academic achievement, drop out rates and increased likelihood that a student will enter the criminal justice system.” and
  • “these policies disproportionately affect certain groups of students, especially our African American students and students with disabilities.”

The final draft continues to specify important rights and responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrator and the school board.  The final draft adds important provisions that:

  • require school administrators to not only keep good records on inappropriate student behavior, but adds a requirement that they also record behavioral interventions and responses;
  • requires the school board to use qualitative and quantitative data to create and evaluate policies that promote thriving school environments that are respectful, engaging, vibrant and culturally relevant.

The main thrust of the plan is to:

  • institute district-wide systems of positive behavior support (PBS);
  • implement a system of progressive intervention & discipline;
  • and reducing the offenses for which expulsion will be recommended to very few and only those that involve actual violence or possession of a gun or firearm.

Implementing such a plan effectively will involve both a cultural shift in practice as well as addition of staff resources for training and support.  To that end, Superintendent Cheatham is proposing allocating $1.6 million to 17 district schools, including all district high schools, which have records of challenging discipline practices.  Adopting of this recommendation will be critical to successful implementation of the plan.

Of course, like any major change in policy, the plan is not perfect.  As I have stated before, despite statements within both the plan and the Implications for Practice document that accountability is part of the plan, there are absolutely no measurable goals set forth in the plan! How can anyone be held accountable if the plan has no measurable goals?

Moreover, the entire Plan continues to fail to adopt these key provisions:

  • A commitment that no educational time will be lost due to disciplinary removals;
  • Elimination of racial and disability disparities in the district’s disciplinary practices; and
  • although the plan continues to trumpet the “rights and responsibilities” of students, parents & guardians, teachers & staff, administrators, central office staff and the Board of Education, the plan remains silent regarding the consequences of any failures to honor those rights or fulfill those responsibilities.

Despite these flaws, I urge the Board to adopt the final draft of this plan tonight, and to work to remedy these flaws as the plan moves forward in the future.  Doing so, and readmitting my expelled client so she can go back to school tomorrow will go a long way to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance in Madison, which will likely lead to the kind of success Colorado is now experiencing after that state passed a new law in 2012 limiting the use of zero tolerance practices and emphasizing restorative practices.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model

This past fall, the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families released its Race to Equity report on the state of racial disparities in Dane County, Wisconsin.  The data was alarming, including:

  • A Black unemployment rate of 25%–5 times higher than the 5% unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites: worse than the Wisconsin ratio of 23:7%; and far worse than the national ratio of 18:8%;
  • An even more shocking poverty disparity with 75% of Dane County Black children living in poverty compared to 5% of Non-Hispanic White children: once again far worse than the Wisconsin disparity of 49:12%; and the national disparity of 39:14%.

Academically, the disproportional disparities persist in Dane County:

  • 70% of Black students did not take the ACT in 2011, compared to 36% of non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with the state wide non-participation rate of 50:41%;
  • 50% of Black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) did not graduate in 4 years in 2011, compared to 16% of Non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with a 36:9% ratio statewide.

Arrest rates are also alarming:

  • Juvenile arrest rates in 2010 were a shocking 46.9% of Black juveniles arrested in Dane County, while only 7.7% of White juveniles were arrested, compared to a 32.9:9.8% statewide ratio, and a 7.1:3.3% national ratio;
  • Adult arrest rates in 2012 show a similarly shocking 29.5% of Blacks arrested in Dane County, while only 3.6% of whites were arrested, compared to a 23:5.3% statewide ratio, and a 8.2:3.3% national ratio.

Much has been written about these shocking numbers and their human toll, with great leadership being demonstrated in the African-American community, particularly by Rev. Alex Gee, whom I wrote about previously.

However, 6 months after this compelling report which basically describes Madison and Dane County as perhaps the worst place for African-Americans to live in the nation, none of the institutions responsible for this ongoing tragedy: our schools systems; our system of justice; or our economic policy makers; have made specific commitments to stem the tide of this tragedy.

When I last met with Rev. Gee a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that his leadership had presented a unique opportunity to move Madison and Dane County from the Worst to the First in the nation on addressing racial disparities.  While many may be skeptical and remain satisfied with tinkering around the edges to seek and hopefully obtain minor, incremental improvements, I believe that with:

  • clearly identified, measurable goals,
  • community-wide support to achieve those goals,
  • policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals; and
  • clear accountability for community leaders to take credit for achieving those goals and blame for failure to do so,

we can create The Madison Model for ending racial disparities, and more importantly, achieving racial justice as an example for the nation.

Skeptics will argue that my suggestions are naive and such dramatic improvement simply cannot be achieved.  Indeed, without clear measurable goals, community-wide support to achieve those goals, policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals, and clear accountability for community leaders to achieve those goals, Madison and Dane County will likely stay mired in its misery of racial injustice.  Fortunately, Rev. Gee’s coalition has galvanized many and will be convening organizing meetings on March 29th & April 5th to move this process forward.  I look forward to participating in both sessions to continue our work in moving Madison from Worst to First.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Creating Safe Space for Meaningful Dialogue

Sadly, we now live in a world in which those who engage in political debate often spend more time shouting at each other and insulting opposing views and opponents, than actually listening to and learning from each other.  In the American Jewish community, this lack of meaningful dialogue is particularly acute when the topic is Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. This problem has erupted in a major way in many college campus Hillel chapters.  At the University of California-Berkeley, the Jewish Student Union recently voted to deny membership to J Street U, marking a low point in refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Jews about Israel and its conflict with Palestinians.  However, not all Hillel chapters have been so closed minded.  Indeed, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel recently welcomed the establishment of a J Street U chapter.

Fortunately, there is an organization which is dedicated to providing a safe forum for Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians. The Jewish Dialogue Group trains facilitators to convene groups of Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians.  It has no agenda to sway participants to one point of view or another.  Rather, its agenda is allow Jews to understand each other better and to learn from each other.  To that end it has published a Manual for Facilitators, Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which you can read and download for free, or purchase a printed copy. It has also recently published a, Guidebook for Deliberation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is also available as to read or download for free, or for purchase in print.

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Last year, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, convened a number of facilitated Jewish Dialogue sessions, and I was pleased to be able to attend one of them. The session provided what it promised, a safe and meaningful dialogue where participants not only learned each other’s views, but of equal importance, learned more about their own true feelings because they were able to express them safely in ways that may not have been available to them in the past.

Based on the success of my own congregation’s dialogue sessions, last fall, I made the decision to try to broaden Jewish Dialogue in Madison to the entire Jewish community.  I felt that the best way to do so was to obtain co-sponsorship of all the major Jewish organizations in Madison.  I am pleased to report that after many discussions, the Jewish Federation of Madison, UW-Hillel, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, have all agreed to join Shaarei Shamayim in co-sponsoring 3 Jewish Dialogue sessions in late April and early May.

The sessions are free, but in order to participate, one must register by April 1st. So, if you are Jewish and you live in the Madison area and can attend a Jewish Dialogue session on April 23, April 30, or May 1st, please register by April 1st.  I assure you that if you participate, you will grow from the experience and learn important skills about how to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue, something our world sorely needs at present.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Still Waiting for Genuine Accountability: Madison Issues Third Draft of Behavior Education Plan

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) recently issued its 3rd draft of its Behavior Education Plan, and given my current experience representing clients who are suffering due to the school district’s current inflexible zero tolerance discipline policy, the school board should act as quickly as possible to adopt a new approach.  This version was accompanied by the first draft of a document entitled, Implications for Practice, which has not been posted to the MMSD’s web site, but I can e-mail a copy to you at your request.

Like the 2nd draft, there are separate plans for Elementary School Students and Middle & High School Students.  As I mentioned when I analyzed the 2nd draft, there is very little difference between these two plans, and I continue to urge the school board to consolidate the plans and simply identify different treatment for different ages if and when appropriate.

The good news about the 3rd draft is that all of the positive elements from the 2nd draft remain intact which should result in moving the school district

away from zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary practices toward proactive approaches that focus on building student and staff skills and competencies, which, in turn, lead to greater productivity and success.

The 3rd draft goes one step further by stating that the school district believes

that children learn by pushing and testing limits, getting feedback about their behavioral choices and making the changes needed to become contributing members of a community of learners.

This version continues “to reflect a district commitment to student equity,”  and sets forth many positive purposes behind the Behavior Education Plan.

Sadly, however, despite my urging, and despite statements within both the plan and the Implications for Practice document that accountability is part of the plan, there are absolutely no measurable goals set forth in the plan!  How can anyone be held accountable if the plan has no measurable goals?

Moreover, the entire Plan continues to fail to adopt these key provisions:

  • A commitment that no educational time will be lost due to disciplinary removals; and
  • Elimination of racial and disability disparities in the district’s disciplinary practices.

Unfortunately, although the plan continues to trumpet the “rights and responsibilities” of students, parents & guardians, teachers & staff, administrators, central office staff and the Board of Education, the plan remains silent regarding the consequences of any failures to honor those rights or fulfill those responsibilities.

The Implications for Practice document clearly states that,

Every school will be held responsible for quality implementation of the BEP.

But there is no mention of how each school, and more importantly, each individual who is responsible for implementation of the BEP will be held responsible.

The best way to hold the district and each school accountable is to set forth specific measurable goals.  For example, the most recent available discipline data is for the 2011-12 school year.  It shows the following disturbing statistics in MMSD:

  • 2,169 students were suspended (8.1% of all students)
  • Over half of those suspended students, 1,278, were African American (23.7% of all African American students)
  • Nearly half of those suspended students, 902, had disabilities (22.7% of all students with disabilities)

If the district is serious about changing its practices, it should set district and school specific goals for reducing all of these numbers and these gross disparities.

Similarly, since more time in school is directly related to improved school performance, the school district should also set forth specific district-wide and school specific goals to improve these dismal graduation rates, which in the most recent reporting year of 2011-12 shows:

  • Only a 74.6% 4 year graduation rate;
  • A 63.2% Latino 4 year graduation rate;
  • A horrific 53.1% African-American 4 year graduation rate; and
  • An even worse 46.2% 4 year graduation rate for students with disabilities.

If the MMSD School Board and Administration is serious about accountability for implementing a new progressive Behavior Implementation Plan, it will set forth 1, 3 and 5 year goals for reducing its horrendous suspension rates and increasing its dismal graduation rates. They should then bask in the community’s praise for achieving those goals, or accept full responsibility for failure to achieve those targets and adjust their actions accordingly in order to improve the district’s performance.  If the school board and administration fail to set specific goals for improvement, then community advocates must set those goals for the district and hold the district and its leaders accountable.  Failure to do so will perpetuate the MMSD’s continual feeding of the schools to prison pipeline.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Setting Goals is Critical for Effective Systems Change

Regardless of the type of systems change in which one is engaged, success can only be measured if goals for such change are established.  A good example is the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) current effort to revise its discipline policy (the current draft is now dubbed the “Behavior Education Plan).”  While it appears that these important revisions represent an effort at systemic change away from zero tolerance disciplinary practice, it is impossible to tell whether the changes will truly result in the desired systemic change because the current draft does not establish specific short or long-term goals.

A good place to start is with an examination of the most current available discipline data for MMSD which is from the 2011-12 school year.  That data reveals the following for that year:

  • 8.1% of all students were suspended.
  • 10.4% of all boys were suspended.
  • 10.2% of all Native American students were suspended.
  • 23.7% of all African American students were suspended.
  • 22.7% of all students with disabilities were suspended.

The problem with excessive suspension peaks in MMSD’s middle schools as:

  • 13.7% of all 6th grade students were suspended; and
  • 18% of all 7th grade students were suspended.

Interestingly, during that year, the largest single category of suspensions resulted from violations of school rules which were not weapon, drug, or assault related.

So, as we grapple with a significant overhaul of the school district’s behavior policies, the question for the MMSD administration, school board, and community is:

How should these numbers change in 1 year,  3 years and 5 years?

If goals for improving these dismal numbers are not set, then it will be impossible for the school board, administration and Madison community to determine if the new behavior policies are having their intended effect.

If the school district fails to set those goals, those of us who want to see Madison truly progress beyond zero tolerance policies and into genuine behavior education that leads to academic success, will need to set those goals for the school district and hold the MMSD school board and administration accountable for the success or failure of achieving those goals.

Studies show that increased time in instruction driven by implementation of school-wide behavior support instead of punitive zero tolerance practices, leads to increased academic success.  

Accordingly, MMSD should also set reasonable goals to improve the academic performance of its students so that we move beyond this dismal graduation rate data from the 2011-12 when:

  • 86.7% of white 12th graders graduated in the expected 4 years; but
  • only 63.2% of Latino 12th graders graduated in 4 years;
  • 53.1% of African-American 12th graders graduated in 4 years; and
  • 46.2% of students with disabilities graduated in 4 years.

So, let’s set realistic goals to keep students in school and improve their academic success. Failure to do so will result in further behavioral and academic failure which continues to fuel the schools to prison pipeline.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.