In the Classroom

Viral video of a teacher tearing a student's paper sparks renewed school discipline debate

Tough discipline has been strongly connected with efforts to improve academic performance in poor communities over the past decade — particularly in charter schools, both nationally and in Indianapolis.

But the “no excuses” approach, including more frequent suspensions and expulsions, has drawn criticism that it can be unfair to black and Hispanic kids. Critics say the harsh method is more likely to be deployed in schools that serve mostly poor and minority children.

In the weeks since a viral video exposed what critics described as “no excuses” gone too far, parents and educators across the country have rekindled a debate about how far is too far when it comes to punishing kids. The video features Charlotte Dial, a teacher at New York’s Success Academy charter school, berated a first grade student and tearing her paper. Dial, coincidentally, is a 2009 graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis but studied political science and sociology, not education, as an undergraduate.

Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, who addressed the discipline debate in her New York Times bestselling book, Building a Better Teacher, today published her take on the issue on Chalkbeat New York. Her view: No excuses might work, but change is needed.

“I think some founding principles of the no-excuses philosophy, principles born in the 1990s that survive in schools today, need fundamental overhaul,” Green wrote. “I also think there is evidence that the same people and institutions who created no-excuses ideas can successfully revise them.”

Tied up in the question of discipline are concerns about racial bias. In Indiana, for example, black children face suspension and expulsion at far higher rates than white students. The gap is one of the worst in the country.

Some schools, including Indianapolis Public Schools, have tried to shift discipline away from severe punishments, toward efforts to better understand the underlying causes of student misbehavior. But when schools limit severe punishments, teachers sometimes worry that they will have fewer tools to manage their classrooms.

Mark Russell, the director of education for the Indianapolis Urban League, thinks the problem is rooted in cultural misunderstanding.

“I think a lot of that still comes down to, are teachers culturally competent?” he said. “You still have 80 percent of teachers who are white, often times in schools that are majority black and Latino.”

Discipline policies that trigger automatic punishments for a variety of offenses are a problem, Russell said.

“Zero tolerance is a stupid policy,” he said. “It doesn’t make room for human frailty. The response is to punish everything, whether it makes sense or not.”

The Indianapolis NAACP did its own survey of suspensions and expulsions in Indianapolis area schools and their results matched the national data — big gaps between the discipline rates for white students compared to their black and Latino peers.

“Folks say the kids of color must be worse in their behavior but that’s not true,” said Carole Craig, the former education committee chairwoman for the Indianapolis NAACP who help conduct the study. “The interpretation of behaviors — like defiance and disrespect — is subjective.”

The NAACP’s study honed in on one particular charter school network — Tindley Accelerated School — that unapologetically advocated tough discipline for its students. The network also ran Arlington High School in Indianapolis as part of a state takeover effort, and tough discipline there also became an issue.

Tindley’s CEO, Marcus Robinson, strongly defended the network’s practice at the time, but has recently resigned. Craig said the NAACP hopes to continue pushing for Tindley and other charters to reconsider policies it believes are too harsh.

The good news, according to Craig, is the NAACP has seen school districts moving away from zero tolerance and no excuses strategies since its 2014 study.

“No excuses discipline, as I see it, is a way to try to control student behavior,” she said. “It cannot be about control. It has to be about everyone owning discipline. It is a way of learning how to exist in a society. You want everyone to learn, to prosper and to benefit.”

Better discipline requires a lot more training for teachers, she said, but it pays off.

“You have to do a lot on the front end or you will end up with these problems on the back end,” Craig said. “But the districts are really trying.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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