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Cincinnati Agreement Will Rate Teachers on Discipline

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Cincinnati teachers who fail to control student behavior could themselves be subject to disciplinary action, under the terms of a new settlement in the district's school-desegregation case.

In an attempt to address the disproportionate representation of black students among those the schools suspend or expel, the out-of-court settlement approved late last month calls for the district to reward teachers who manage students well and dismiss those who do so poorly and do not improve.

Although the courts have repeatedly been asked to address perceived bias in school discipline, the Cincinnati agreement appears to be the first settlement to call for data to be collected on individual classrooms so that teachers can be held accountable for how well they manage students.

"If you have a positive impact, you will be rewarded,'' said William L. Taylor, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. "If you have a negative impact, maybe you should be taking on something else outside the school system.''

The proposed settlement "took discipline beyond just an infraction code and put it out in terms of accountability, training, and other areas,'' observed J. Michael Brandt, the superintendent of the Cincinnati schools.

The school board unanimously approved the agreement last month, just hours before new hearings on the case in U.S. District Court.

Union Approval Uncertain

In granting the new agreement his preliminary approval, Judge Walter H. Rice praised the two sides for avoiding a costly trial.

The case, which the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed 19 years ago on behalf of a group of district students, had been largely settled once before, in 1984.

By 1991, Judge Rice had released the district from court supervision in most areas. But he retained oversight by a court-appointed monitor to address racial disparities in discipline, staff racial imbalance, and the poor performance of eight schools.

If the new agreement receives Judge Rice's final approval following a January hearing, it will essentially put an end to the case.

The proposed changes in discipline policies may require changes in the district's contract with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, however, and union approval last week appeared far from certain.

Thomas J. Mooney, the president of the 4,000-member C.F.T., said problems with discipline are "much more complex than the assumptions that underlie this agreement.''

The union will resist efforts to lower discipline standards, he said, adding, "Our worst fear is that teachers and principals alike will read this settlement as a retreat from maintaining good standards of behavior.''

"That is not going to be good for education,'' Mr. Mooney asserted. "It is not what parents, in general, want, and it is not what taxpayers want.''

Tougher Standards Imposed

Although the 1984 agreement called for the fair and equitable disciplining of students, a 1992 study ordered by the court showed that black students continued to be twice as likely as white students to be suspended, and also were far more likely to be expelled.

Moreover, the study found, suspension and expulsion rates had risen dramatically in the previous year following implementation of a new discipline policy, drafted by the school board and the C.F.T., that added the use of profanity toward staff to the list of behaviors triggering in-school suspension.

Last week, The Cincinnati Enquirer cited black parents' anger over the tough new discipline policy as one reason voters rejected a $348 million bond request. (See related story, page 5.)

The new settlement calls for the district to require principals to maintain records of each referral for discipline that include the name, race, age, gender, and grade of the student and the name and race of the person making the referral.

Although a large volume of discipline referrals alone would not be viewed as cause to punish a teacher, it could trigger a closer examination of the teacher's behavior-management skills. Teachers who are found deficient and fail to improve with additional training could lose their positions, while teachers who prove skilled at behavior management could receive promotions, bonuses, and other rewards.

Mr. Mooney of the C.F.T. argued that it is unfair to hold teachers responsible for the behavior students bring into the classrooms.

"Schools operate on middle-class norms of behavior, and, frankly, we get a lot of students, black and white, who don't know anything about those norms,'' he said.

But Mr. Taylor said a key virtue of the discipline provisions is that they force teachers to stop blaming students' backgrounds for behavior problems and instead focus on their own impact on student behavior.

Other provisions of the settlement call for the district to continue to insure the integration of students and staff and to work to improve education, especially in the eight low-achieving schools.

The agreement also holds teachers accountable for achievement and provides for various changes, such as the use of multi-age classrooms through the 8th grade, to keep students from falling behind.

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