Vague Goals Produce Vague Results

Three years ago, I wrote with concern that the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) Behavior Education Plan (BEP), while laudable in its purpose to reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve in school behavior, would be challenged to make genuine progress without specific goals. While I would be glad to admit that my prediction was wrong, the recently released Quarter 1 Review of the BEP confirms my fears.

school to prison pipeline

To be clear, due to some criticism of the BEP, including my own concern that it had vague goals, and insufficient staff training and support, a new implementation plan was adopted along with the following goals:

1) to promote and increase positive student behavior and social emotional growth, 2) to reduce use of out-of-school suspension and 3) to decrease disproportionate use of out-of-school suspension practices for African American students and students with disabilities.

Yet, these laudable goals are not specific, i.e., how much should positive student behavior and social emotional growth increase, how much should out-of-school suspensions decrease, and how much should disproportionate use of out-of-school suspensions for African American students and students with disabilities decrease? Moreover, if even these vague goals are not achieved, who should be held accountable for the failure to achieve these goals, and in what manner?

Remarkably, three years after the BEP was passed by the school board, without explanation or justification, the report concedes that:

A small number of schools, however, are working on establishing stable response systems, and achieving a basic level of positive student behavior and support for social emotional growth. These schools experienced, in first quarter, a disproportionate increase in level 2-5 behavior due in part to a lack of robust systems to support positive student behavior.

To be sure, there is good news in the report. For example:

  • Compared to first quarter of 2016-2017, the out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students in middle school has decreased significantly from 20:1 to 8:1.
  • The district-wide out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students and students with disabilities in Quarter 1 of this year is the lowest (10:1 for African American students and 6:1 for students with disabilities) it has ever been when comparing data from the past three first quarters of school.

However, these improvements are in stark contrast with the following bad news:

  • an overall increase in behavior events by 18% this year compared to 2016- 2017;
  • Elementary schools account for 61% of all level 2-5 incidents in Quarter 1 this year. Three of those schools had 28% of all elementary level 2-5 incidents;
  • Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year; despite reduced risk ratios, the increase is driven largely by middle school (24% increase) with students of all ethnicities accounting for some portion of the increase;
  • At the high school level, out-of-school suspensions and level 2-5 incidents are slightly up this year compared to last year, and the increase mostly impacts African American students; and
  • Most schools are below the expected baseline of implementation in the intervention category and have strategies “off track” to address the need.

Remarkably, the report’s Next Steps contain absolutely no focus on problem schools, specific goals to achieve or accountability for failure to achieve the many goals that remain out of reach.

What remains unexplained is how the behavior incidents dropped from 17,015 involving 3,841 students in the 2015-16 school year to 14,929 incidents involving 3,344 students, but then rose to exceed the already high 2015-16 numbers to 17,678 incidents involving 4,112 students. Without evidence, the report attributes this over 16% jump to, “more cohesive and comprehensive school implementation of practices foundational to behavior education.” Yet, such a statement is clearly counter-intuitive since the primary goal of the BEP is reduce behavior incidents, a dramatic rise in behavior incidents the 3rd year of implementation simply cannot be the result of better implementation that is counter to the goal.

Regarding the disproportionality goal, the report states that:

Disproportionality, particularly for our African American students, students with disabilities, and male students persists. With a disproportionality increase of 2%, in behavior incidents for African American students supporting schools, particularly addressing the implementation area that focuses on decision making. While we have not yet moved the needle for our African American students, we have experienced a 2% decrease in disproportionality for male students and 7% decrease for students with disabilities.

Since it is well documented that the school to prison pipeline is fueled by out of school suspensions and expulsions, one must wonder why MMSD has failed to reduce out of school suspensions. Yet, the report reveals that:

Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year, an increase (24%) driven largely by middle schools.

Worse than that and perhaps revealing the complete failure of accountability in implementing the BEP, the report honestly concedes that:

this data is not surprising. A key reflection, following the evaluation, was that continuing to do more of the same will not move the needle.

While the report praises the fact that out of school suspension disproportionality for African American students has decreased, such a decrease hardly matters when the overall suspension rate continues to rise.

The report fails to comment on the deeply troubling data that out of school suspension disproportionately for students with disabilities increased significantly. While 15% of MMSD’s students have disabilities, 55% of out of school suspensions involve students with disabilities, up from 50% in the prior 2 years. Sadly, the report fails to mention a single recommendation about how to improve supports for special education staff and students to mitigate this problem.

To its credit, the report is candid about the many ways in which the school district is off track in implementing the BEP. What it does not explain is why such failure is allowed to persist. Towards the end of the report, all schools are listed by where they are in implementing the BEP divided by 3 phases. This shows that elementary schools are making vastly more progress in implementing the BEP with a majority of those schools already at phase 3. But, without explanation, this chart also shows that no middle schools are at phase 3 and only half are at phase 2 of implementation, and even  worse, no high schools are in phase 3 and only 1 (Memorial) is at phase 2.

As I have said since I praised the adoption of the BEP, the plan is a good one, the failures then as now continue to be that it has:

  • vague goals;
  • lack of accountability; and
  • insufficient staff training and support.

Until the MMSD school board addresses these problems, we can expect to see a continuation of mixed results from an otherwise laudable plan, which is a wasted opportunity to improve the lives of our students and keep them out of the school to prison pipeline.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact  him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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