First Person

What Eva Moskowitz gets wrong about restorative discipline

Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter Schools CEO, recently denounced “restorative conflict resolution,” saying that the practice makes schools less safe. Students who are violent toward other students need “discipline … not dialogue,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece aimed at criticizing the de Blasio administration’s shift toward restorative justice in new school discipline rules. Without safety, students cannot learn, let alone experience the “joy” of a well-ordered, clean, safe school environment, argues Moskowitz, who boasts that her charter schools suspended 11 percent of students last year.

As a former city schoolteacher who now studies discipline practices, I would argue that self-identified “restorative schools” manage to achieve communities of joy, safety, and learning while maintaining suspension rates below Success Academy’s and below the city average of 4 percent — although they do suspend students and do not tolerate threats to school safety.

Restorative justice theory emphasizes the value of accountability — all students and staff in a school are accountable to each other and to protect their learning environment (read more in discipline guides like “The Little Guide to Restorative Practices for Schools”). Conflict represents a rupture in that community, and that rupture must be “restored” through highly structured dialogue protocols, according to the theory. The particulars of such protocols vary from school to school, but some examples from New York City and Oakland, Calif., schools come in the film “Growing Fairness.”

Critics of restorative practices, including Moskowitz, portray them as anathema to “real discipline.” They say restorative schools are less safe, give students equal standing to educators in discipline matters, and do not offer the kinds of consequences that students will encounter in the real world.

My research has found that none of these arguments accurately characterizes restorative schools. During my three years of ethnographic work about restorative practices as part of my doctoral research, I have interviewed principals, students, and educators at restorative schools across the city. All assure me that any students who fight on campus are removed from the building immediately if there is a threat to student safety. Restorative conferences — which Moskowitz derides as “talking out” how actions “impact others” — are facilitated only after students have had proper time to cool down and, more importantly, have agreed to make amends with each other.

Moskowitz is right that restorative schools don’t always suspend students for fighting. That’s because administrators aim to spot and defuse conflicts before they become physical. Restorative justice is not merely a conflict resolution strategy; its largest component is a set of proactive, community building practices used to promote and protect the type of “purposeful, joyful” and physically safe learning environment that Moskowitz herself endorses.

Moskowitz also expresses concern about the notion of teachers and students engaging in conflict resolution as equals, describing a scenario in which teachers beg or bargain with students who punch other students. This is a caricature of what actually happens during the restorative process. Teachers and students in restorative schools are not “equals” in that they both get to determine the rules of the school or what behavior will be tolerated to maintain a safe school environment, as James Baldwin School founding principal Elijah Hawkes explains in Rethinking Schools. They are equal in that, as human beings who share a space and many experiences together, they have an obligation to understand and be sensitive to each other’s needs.

No child “needs” to punch another child, which is why physical violence is not tolerated in restorative schools. The difference is that those schools see violence as almost always speaking to deeper emotional needs that are going untreated. For students who grow up in violent and/or impoverished neighborhoods, violent behavior is often a symptom of underlying trauma. Those harms—the harm to the child who was hurt and to the child who acted violently—cannot be surfaced through suspension or removal, even if such actions are necessary in the immediate moments after a fight. Ultimately, harms can only be surfaced and restored through discussion, trust, and empathy.

That’s why I am cautiously hopeful about the de Blasio administration’s efforts to reduce the ease with which principals can suspend students for insubordinate behavior (something that federal authorities want urban districts with racially disproportionate suspension rates, such as New York City, to do). It’s also why I am alarmed that Moskowitz could think that purpose and joy are only possible when fewer than 90 percent of students are allowed to attend school year round. If we want our students to grow up able to resolve conflict the way conflict is resolved in the real world — through communication, without running away or banishing each other — we need to teach them the necessary skills.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.