This blog post started out as a reply to readers who commented on today’s story discussing discipline data. The data show discriminatory discipline is a real phenomenon at the local, state and national levels.
My reply got a little lengthy, so I had to put it in the blog.
Vitaeus, you asked, “Is there any research into how many discipline cases are upheld on higher review?” You also were worried about districts being subject to quotas.
Regarding whether cases were upheld, I assume you’re talking about the federal review of complaints of possible civil rights violations in schools. My understanding is that the evidence of discriminatory discipline referred to in the report was based on cases that had been vetted (not those that were unfounded), as well as investigation of school districts’ discipline practices across the nation.
Larry Croix: Yes, it is possible for a snapshot of data to be taken out of context. But the feds have been following this issue for years (as I will elaborate on in part 6 of this series).
None of the many school officials, youth advocates and education policy analysts I talked to denied that discriminatory discipline exists, including Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute (quoted in this story). But Petrilli doesn’t like the idea of sanctions, which he says could drive schools toward a quota-driven approach to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
That seems a valid and fair concern, especially given recent history in districts, like Philadelphia, where school officials tried to reduce suspensions and expulsions without a systematic approach to maintaining control of the classroom. The schools became chaotic and dangerous, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Data from the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is different from the federal data. It comes from Washington schools’ annual reports in the number of incidents and disciplinary actions (as in the database, above in the story). That gives a snapshot of each district per school year, showing what was the most prevalent reported offense at each. Was it bullying, drugs, fighting without major injury? And so on.
On OSPI’s website, you can also drill down to each school. They are working on making that information easily accessible/ sharable, but when we checked, their “report builder” wasn’t ready for prime time. And we’re talking a ton of data here, so transferring it by hand would have been prohibitive for our staff. We will try to pull that data to our website when it becomes available.
Schools, in the past, also have reported demographic information on race, socioeconomic status and disabilities. As of 2012-2013, they must now show disciplinary action by demographic group.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is incorporating this new data (not new to the schools) into its public database, which will be out some time this spring, according to the OSPI spokesman I talked to.
What will all this new data do? Going forward, districts and other interested parties can track discipline data by demographic group over the years by district and down to the school level. Hopefully, analysts and the public will look at patterns and not snapshots taken out of context, a concern of one school official I spoke to.
In theory, districts are consistent in their recording and reporting of incidents, but that may not be so, at least yet, according North Mason’s Superintendent David Peterson, whose district had the highest rate of suspensions and expulsions of all local districts in 2010-2013. Peterson says differences in how districts view, record and report offenses can account for at least part of this.
Larry Croix, you make the point that data could be manipulated. School officials and a spokeswoman from the Washington State School Directors association, also were concerned about this, especially given that (in theory) anyone could make their own data report from OSPI’s website. Cherry picking in theory is a possibility, so certainly one would want to consider the source.
The state report referenced in this story analyzed discipline data by demographics for the 2009-2010 school year. Data for the graphic illustration in the newspaper today came from the 2012-2013 school year, analyzed for us by Washington Appleseed, an organization focused on education policy and social justice. Appleseed has a data sharing agreement with OSPI.
The state report, co-authored by data analysts at Washington Appleseed, appears well vetted. Lawmakers considered it heavily in recent legislation addressing discipline that got bipartisan support.
Bottom line, regarding discriminatory discipline, we’re talking about a decade or more of local, state and national data. I talked to dozens of school officials and teachers. Only one denied that discriminatory discipline is a real phenomenon.
Will the data get better as districts become more consistent in their reporting and as the state improves its system of collecting and reporting that data? Hopefully. That’s the idea. This is all a big work in progress.
In the meanwhile, educators are moving forward with “best practices” aimed at helping troubled students while reducing exclusionary discipline.
“I don’t need to know the exact number of students they’re suspending and expelling and the exact rates,” said Linda Mangel of the ACLU of Washington. “We have enough data to know we have a serious problem with racial disparities in discipline in our state.”
But, Mangel added, “The data only tells part of the story.”
You can’t make the assumption of bias in discipline just based on data, she said.
“What data can help us do is identify teachers in schools who may need extra support,” she said.
That will be the topic of tomorrow’s story.
Local officials have argued that solutions to discipline issues are most appropriately found at the district and building level. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss how behavior can get misinterpreted and where some teachers may need support in working with minorities.
Thanks all, for your interest.
Chris Henry, reporter