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.


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.



Weed Harvesting

Though I was an American history major in college, the best class I took was Practical Botany. During that class, I learned the definition of a weed. It is quite simple. Weeds are plants that are in an undesired location. For example, grass growing in your vegetable garden is a weed, even though it is not a weed in your lawn.

Healthy lakes include plant life. In some cases, the plant life is so abundant that it becomes a weed because it interferes with the healthy growth of other species or other desired uses, such as safe boating and swimming.

Goose Lake, where I chair the Watershed District, is a very healthy lake. In fact, it contains designated critical habitats which support a myriad of plant and animal life, as detailed in this report.

Maintaining a healthy balance between sustaining the critical habitat which thrives in Goose Lake, and allowing the lake to be enjoyed by residents and visitors is included within the responsibility of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD). One of our responsibilities is to harvest weeds from the non-critical habitat. A few years ago, we bought a used weed harvester. Since then, we have been able to harvest the weeds as needed instead of depending on the schedule of an unreliable contractor.

However, most people think of weeds as something to pull and get rid of instead of harvest. Given our respect for the environment, we harvest the weeds by transporting those we cut to a nearby organic farmer. The nutrition from the weeds is thereby returned to the earth to grow healthy, organic food.

As you can see, there are a lot of weeds to turn into organic compost. A local homeowner, Fred Mess, has done a marvelous job maintaining our old harvester, including fashioning parts when used parts are no longer available. He volunteers his time to both maintain the harvester and harvest weeds.


Fred Mess with a full load of weeds, approximately 3500 pounds.

Fred has also trained others to run the harvester as no organization should rely on a single person for a critical task.

Since we also maintain the public beach and boat launch, last weekend while Fred and John were harvesting weeds from the lake, a few of us raked weeds from the beach to make the beach safe and pleasant for swimming.


Nick Homan raking the beach weeds in order to transport them to an organic farm along with the weeds cut by the harvester.

Harvesting weeds to improve our lake and convert an undesired plant into organic food is a perfect example of environmental systems change. It is also a metaphor for systems change in many other areas of life.

Rather than simply getting rid of things that are undesirable through seclusion and restraint in our schools, or incarceration, the better approach is to use tools such as positive behavioral support and restorative justice as a form of positive harvesting.


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

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.


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.


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.


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

Madison takes Positive Steps towards Improved Behavior Plan

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has issued its 2nd draft of its proposed new student discipline policy, which shows great improvement over the first draft.  A feedback session for community members is scheduled for tomorrow (Feb. 27th) for the 2nd draft.

The 2nd draft exhibits a significant improvement over the first draft, including adopting a number of the suggestions I made in my comments on the first draft. These improvements include:

  • The name has changed to the Behavior Education Plan which appropriately reflects the newly stated purpose of:

Creating Safe, Supporting and Thriving Learning Environments…where all students are able and expected to learn.

  • A stated Shift in Practice which:

moves us 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.

  • An explicit recognition of racial and disability disparities in discipline which exist both nationally and within MMSD.
  • Clear stated purposes of the plan.
  • A strong emphasis on Positive Behavior Support and other pro-social interventions with a stated expectation that all school staff establish positive relationships with students.
  • Students are granted the rights to:
  • Attend school and be valued members of the community; and receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills.

  • Emphasizing that:

Understanding student behavior as an opportunity for learning is fundamental to a positive and progressive approach to discipline….Every reasonable effort should be made to correct inappropriate student behavior using Intervention Strategies and the least severe Discipline Responses possible….Because inappropriate behavior may be symptomatic of underlying problems that students are experiencing, it is critical that all staff be sensitive to issues that may influence student behavior and respond in a progressive manner that is most supportive of student needs.

  • Acknowledging that:

Foundational to supporting positive behavior in all students is the use of effective, culturally-relevant instruction.

Together, these positive steps, if adopted by the school board, would place Madison along with progressive school districts such as San Francisco, which recently approved a policy favoring alternatives to suspension.

While these are huge steps forward, more room for improvement remains.  Further steps forward should include:

  • The 2nd draft includes separate plans for elementary school students and middle and high school students, but the differences between these plans are so minor that they are likely to cause more confusion than clarity.
  • While 6 good purposes of the Plan are set forth, at least 3 should be added, including:
  1. Teaching appropriate behavior to all students;
  2. Ensuring that no instructional time is lost due to disciplinary practices; and
  3. Eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.
  • While many “rights” are set forth, it remains uncertain what the school district’s response will be if those “rights” are not granted.  For example, the “right” to “attend school” should trump suspension and expulsion.  Furthermore, if the “right” to “receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills” is denied, will the school district refrain from punitive disciplinary practices?
  • Adding clear annual school specific and overall district numerical goals with clearly stated accountability for implementing the pro-social interventions, reducing the school to prison pipeline, and eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.

While it is unlikely to be placed within the Plan, in order for MMSD to implement a progressive Behavior Education Plan, it needs to put significant resources into staff and student training.  Advocates will need to encourage the school board to pass an improved version of this plan, but to provide the necessary funding for its successful implementation. It is time to adopt a policy which has zero tolerance for failure to educate all of our children.


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

Reforming School Discipline in Madison: Seize the Educational Opportunity

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is currently engaged in drafting a new Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, with the school board’s goal of implementing that new plan in the 2014-15 school year.  Recently, the ad hoc committee working on revising this plan released its first draft.  For reasons that remain unclear, neither the school board, the ad hoc committee, nor the district administration has made clear how and when the public will have an opportunity to provide input into this important plan.  However, since systems change rarely happens for those who wait, it is important for advocates who want to seize the educational opportunity to end Madison’s schools to prison pipeline and eliminate racial disparities, to engage in this plan now.  It is in that spirit that I offer the following input on this plan.

At the outset, it is important to note that our public schools can and must teach appropriate behavior.  Therefore, the Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, would be better named the Student Conduct and Education Plan. Only when educators recognize that the mission of all behavior management should be education, will we improve the educational results for all children.  It is time for MMSD to embrace a mission that no student should ever be denied an education.  While some students may have such highly challenging behavior that they need a specialized setting for their education, if anything, those students need more education, not less.

In addition, the draft plan does not list any goals.  Without goals, how will we know if the plan is working?  Laudable goals that should be applied to this plan include:

  • reduction in the number of students suspended;
  • reduction in the number of students expelled;
  • increase in the overall safety of students and staff;
  • reduction in the racial and disability disparities in suspensions and expulsions;
  • increase in the educational performance of the student body;
  • decrease in racial and disability disparities in educational performance;
  • decrease in truancy;
  • decrease in drop out rate;
  • increase in graduation rate;
  • increase in college acceptance rate; and
  • increase in post-high school employment rate.

These lofty goals will certainly not be achieved at once, so a 5 year plan for gradual improvement in each area with specific targets for each year should be embedded in the plan with built-in review and accountability measures put in place.

Next, the draft states the purpose of the plan.  While the purposes listed are fine, and fortunately include “support positive behavior change in students,” additional purposes should be added, including:

  • Identifying home and community issues, including health issues that could be contributing to behavior challenges and connecting families to appropriate resources to assist with those issues;
  • Adding data review to the already stated purpose of ensuring that “students are treated fairly and without discrimination,”
  • Connect quality education with behavior improvement, as it is well known that frustrated students often misbehave out of frustration in the classroom;
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses at the classroom, school and district-wide level on an ongoing basis to improve on weaknesses by replicating promising practices; and
  • Using behavior challenges to engage in the child find obligation of state and federal special education law to evaluate whether these children may qualify for special education supports and services.

The next section of the draft lists various Rights & Responsibilities.  These rights and responsibilities will only become a reality if those responsible for enforcing them are held accountable for doing so.

The Student Rights & Responsibilities include many good things.  However, they are missing this all important right:

  • Access to appropriate supports and services to succeed in school.

The Parent/Guardian Rights & Responsibilities also includes many good things.  However, they are missing:

  • An in-school ombudsman to help parents resolve issues as quickly as possible.
  • Reasonably quick response time from the school district when parents express concerns.

The draft School Administrator Rights & Responsibilities is a good start, but critically it fails to include the responsibilities to:

  • Be held accountable for the successes and failures to achieve the goals of the plan at both the school building and district-wide level.

The Central Office Rights & Responsibilities must also include accountability measures. In addition, it should include:

  • Clearly defined purpose of police presence which should be to carry out the goals of the plan, including reducing the school to prison pipeline, not increasing it.
  • Clearly defining lines of authority between school based staff and central office based staff when handling behavioral challenges, which is currently quite muddled.

Finally, the Board of Education Responsibilities must include holding those responsible accountable for identified success and failures in achieving the gold of the plan.

The best part of the draft is the inclusion of many proactive strategies to improve behavior such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS), but even here the draft remains unclear as to how PBS will be applied; who will be accountable for its successful implementation, what are the lines of authority in its implementation, and will it be implemented district-wide.

The draft identifies many good Intervention Strategies, but misses the mark by failing to connect Effective Classroom Management with Quality Teaching.  In the draft’s list of many pro-active intervention strategies, Trauma Informed Care should be added.  In addition, it remains unclear how these strategies will be applied, who decides when they will be applied, who will be held accountable for their application, and what resources will be provided to ensure that they can be successfully applied.

It is good to see the draft acknowledges the obligation to follow state and federal special education law.  However, as mentioned above, one aspect of that law that is left unmentioned is the child find obligation to use repeated behavioral challenges as a trigger to evaluate students for potential special education supports and services.

The draft concludes with a complex behavior response chart about which I will save in-depth comment for a future draft, other than to mention four critical missing factors:

  1. Identification of specific staff support when assistance is needed;
  2. Interventions should include support for academic challenges the student experiences;
  3. As interventions move up in intensity, review should include whether prior interventions were applied appropriately;
  4. No loss of educational time should be allowed even if removal from the classroom or traditional school building is absolutely necessary.

In sum, it is laudable that the MMSD school board has taken some initial good steps in revising its Student Conduct and Discipline Plan.  Now is the time for advocates and the MMSD to come together to polish the plan and improve educational outcomes and safety of all of our students.


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

School Suspensions: A Failure to Educate

While policy makers and politicians debate school accountability and point fingers at various tools and causes, it is remarkable that the continuing upward trend to suspend ever more students, especially students of color and those with disabilities, continues unabated, with a complete absence of accountability.  Earlier this week, UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, published a comprehensive report on both the overuse of suspensions in our schools, and the wide disparities revealing severe discrimination regarding who receives suspensions.

Key findings from this report include the following troubling data:

  • Latinos had a nearly 11 percentage point increase in suspensions between elementary school and secondary schools, which is particularly surprising since the Latino elementary school suspension rate is similar to the White suspension rate at the elementary level.
  • Black female secondary students were suspended at a higher rate (18.3%) than secondary male students from all other racial/ethnic groups.
  • The rate of suspensions for secondary students with disabilities (19.3%) was nearly triple that of non-disabled students (6.6%).
  • The highest rate of suspensions were for Black male students with disabilities, a shocking 36%.
  • 323 districts around the country had secondary school suspension rates of 25% or higher.
  • 2,624 schools had secondary suspension rates of at least 25%.
  • 519 schools had secondary suspension rates of at least 50%.
  • Chicago led the nation in the number of schools that suspended at least 25% of any subgroup, with 82 of its schools doing so.  Chicago’s overall suspension rate was a horrific 27.5% which is even more troubling when examining the disparity of its 41.6% suspension rate for Black students compared to only 10.6% of its white students.

Anyone who cares about the education of our nation’s children must seriously question why neither the federal government, nor the states, factor suspension rates into any school accountability formula.  Even from a pure academic standpoint, it goes without saying that the massive number of children who are suspended are generally not receiving the benefit of any education when they are out of school.

Moreover, anyone who cares about the achievement gap should be especially concerned about the disparities which this suspension data reveals.  This is especially true because most suspensions are for minor infractions, such as violating dress codes, use of cell phones, tardiness and truancy, loitering and disruption, so it simply cannot be argued that the high use of suspensions is keeping our nation’s schools safer.

Fortunately, UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies also published, A Summary of New Research: Closing the Discipline Gap: Research to Policy, which analyzes and consolidates the results of 16 new research papers on this topic in search of a solution.  Key findings of this summary are:

  • Out of school suspensions have serious, disparate and negative academic outcomes including increasing the number of dropouts. One study analyzing Florida 9th graders found that the drop out rate increased from 16% to 32% for students suspended only once, and jumped to 42% for those suspended twice.
  • It is clear that suspension rates are correlated with intentional decisions made by school leaders.

There is good news in this Research Summary and if we are serious about improving our educational system leading to better educated citizens, these findings must be implemented at the federal, state and local level, as follows:

  • Chicago’s safest schools have strong teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships, resulting in low suspension rates.
  • Teacher training and improving student engagement lead to lower suspension rates.
  • Large district-wide investments in social-emotional learning resulted in safer schools than investments in high-security hardware and personnel, such as metal detectors and school police officers.
  • Non-punitive threat assessment protocols reduce suspensions for all groups.
  • As I discussed in Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline, the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) can be effective in reducing suspensions, but only if PBIS is aligned with school codes of conduct and pays attention to subgroups of students.
  • Restorative justice is a viable strategy  to keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

To sum up, if federal, state, and local policy makers are truly serious about improving educational outcomes, they must insist that local schools develop strategies that keep students in school, instead of issuing rampant suspensions.  Moreover, they must provide the policy and budgetary leadership to do so.

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

Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline: A New Approach

Previously, I wrote optimistically about Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline.  I suggested systemic approaches to this horrific problem, such as implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.  As promising as this approach is, it does not solve the problem for children who are currently caught up in the School to Prison Pipeline.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent local public defender, Debbie Stahl, who used a new approach to push back against the School to Prison Pipeline on behalf of her 14 year old client with multiple disabilities.  As often happens in such cases, the court ordered a competency evaluation, and a psychologist met with the child for an hour and determined that he was competent to stand trial.  Ms. Stahl learned that this psychologist made no inquiry into her client’s special education needs and failed to review his special education records.

After Ms. Stahl reviewed her client’s records and met with her client’s special education teacher, she concluded that there was substantial evidence that her client could not competently decide whether to accept a plea offer.  Nor, could he effectively assist her at trial.  So, she asked if I would review his records, meet her client and his teacher and testify as a special education law expert, with additional expertise on the ethics of representing a child with a disability.  We both knew that this approach was somewhat experimental, but decided it was worth trying.

After I reviewed the boy’s special education records, and met with him and his teacher, I concluded that he could not make an informed decision about the plea offer, nor could he effectively assist his attorney during the trial.  Indeed, his Individualized Education Program (IEP) required his school to provide him a note taker, and was replete with documentation  that he was unable for focus for more than 10 minutes at a time, and often acted as if he understood something, when in fact, he did not.

Upon hearing my testimony, the court accepted me as an expert, and determined that Ms. Stahl had presented sufficient evidence to discredit the prior evaluator’s finding that the child was competent to stand trial.  Accordingly, he ordered a new evaluation by a different psychologist.

While this particular case is not over, it does illustrate the creative ways in which lawyers can bridge the gap between special education and juvenile justice in an effort to connect them in ways that disrupt the School to Prison Pipeline. Hopefully, we and others can do this more often, and both schools and prosecutors will refrain from putting many children with disabilities through the School to Prison Pipeline unnecessarily.

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

Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline

One of the saddest phrases in American education is, Schools to Prison Pipeline. The very concept that schools are actively sending their students to prison is so fundamentally contrary to everything public education should stand for that every American should cry foul and insist that this shameful practice end.  Of course, as is true with many challenging societal problems, ending a shameful practice is easier said than done.

But first, let’s make sure we understand what the Schools to Prison Pipeline is, and how bad the situation has become.  The ACLU’s Racial Justice Project defines the Schools to Prison Pipeline as:

The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.

A variety of methods are used by too many schools, which contribute to this human disaster.  They include:

  • Overuse of zero tolerance of even minor school infractions;
  • Increased reliance on police in schools, resulting in a direct line from a school infraction to juvenile justice prosecution; and
  • Increased use of disciplinary alternative schools, which like prisons, rarely teach students how to behave properly, and instead congregate children with problematic behavior who teach each other how to improve their misbehavior.

Perhaps the most glaring statistic is the remarkable number of students who are suspended in many school districts.  Let’s look at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), where the problem is rampant.  The most recent suspension data is from the 2010-11 school year.  In that year, 18,797 or 23.2% of MPS’ students were suspended, though that number may be low as MPS has been caught submitting false lower numbers to the US Office of Civil Rights in the past.

Even more troubling is that certain populations of students are suspended at significantly  higher rates by MPS.

  • 33.8% of African-American students were suspended;
  • 44.4% of students with disabilities were suspended.

It is beyond question that,

Higher suspension rates were found to be correlated with lower graduation rates.

Congress has looked at this issue, but sadly has failed to act.  A House Judiciary Committee hearing received a report in 2009 which clearly set forth that:

A dropout crisis exists for minority and economically disadvantaged children in every state. African- American males are incarcerated at a rate six times that of White males and Hispanic males more than double that rate according to recent studies published by the U.S. Department of Justice. The significance of this statistic is that African-American males have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group.

Some may shake their heads and simply argue that in order to save well behaved students, we must lock up those who do not behave well.  But this logic has serious flaws.

  • There are solutions to the Schools to Prison Pipeline, including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)which fortunately now has a national support center.   A faithfully implemented, adequately funded system of PBIS has shown not only reduction in disciplinary problems, but a correlated increase in academic success.
  • From a selfish point of view, those who are concerned about crime should be concerned about reducing crime so they do not become victims of crime.
  • Recidivism rates are very high.  While there is no commonly accepted measure of juvenile recidivism, a recent Milwaukee County study showed juvenile recidivism rates hovering between 41-58%.

So the bottom line question is whether or not we want to continue our failed unofficial School to Prison Pipeline policy and continue to suspend and incarcerate students who are disproportionately African-American students and students with disabilities or shift gears and education them properly with sufficient resources to become productive citizens.  The answer should be obvious.  Let’s put an end to the School to Prison Pipeline NOW.

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