School Accountability and Discipline Reformers Find Common Cause

By Alyssa Morones — July 11, 2013 3 min read
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Between now and July 13, the Advancement Project is hosting a convening to begin a dialogue focused around punitive discipline in schools and high-stakes testing, which it says contribute to the national school-to-prison pipeline.

The conference, called “We Can Do Better: Collaborating to Reform School Discipline and Accountability,” will look at the ways in which punitive discipline and high-stakes testing conspire to “push” students out of school, especially those from minority backgrounds or different sexual orientations. More than 300 school administrators, educators, law enforcement, community activists, and students are already registered to discuss the root causes and possible solutions to this national problem.

“We want to show that there is something different that we can be doing in our schools,” said Judith Browne Dianis, the co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group.

A running theme at this convention is student involvement in making changes that help reverse the pipeline because, as Dianis explained, “we cannot have a discussion about this without including those affected.” My colleague Nirvi Shah wrote in the last issue about another effort by the Advancement Project—Action Camp 2.0—to empower students to protest zero-tolerance discipline practices in their own schools.

Along with these young voices, the conference will highlight best practices from across the nation that are being used to address these issues. Leaders from individual schools and districts will weigh in on policies they’ve implemented that succeeded in preventing student pushout and efforts being made at the grassroots level to challenge local testing regimes.

From afar, punitive discipline policies and high-stakes testing may seem like unlikely bedfellows; however, organizers said both contribute to schools’ failure to take into account students as individuals and drive a disconnect between student and teacher—a disconnect for which the conference hopes to provide a solution.

Dianis said, “this isn’t just about policy change, it’s about changing culture and building a relationship between adults and students.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who will be providing the teachers’ perspective on these issues, said, “We need to create an open environment that celebrates difference and diversity. One that celebrates the whole child.”

Friday’s sessions will focus on discipline-related contributions to the pipeline, fueled by the zero-tolerance movement, and possible solutions, including an enhanced use of restorative justice in place of punitive measures like out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and the involvement of law enforcement.

“What was once a trip to the principal’s office is now a trip to the police station,” said Dianis. “Police are becoming disciplinarians.”

A panel will also address the effects that heightened security in schools following the shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., has had on the issue.

Saturday’s sessions will examine high-stakes testing’s contributions to the school-to-prison pipeline.

While the effects of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have an obvious effect on the pipeline, the role of high-stakes testing is more subtle.

“Students cannot learn if they are not engaged, and they cannot be engaged if they’re not in classrooms,” said Weingarten. “Classrooms need to be safe for teaching and learning.”

Not only does high-stakes testing discourage student engagement in favor of rote memorization, according to Dianis, but the accountability policies included in the federal No Child Left Behind law and the Education Department’s Race To The Top programs also encourage schools to feel that they must discard young people unable to “make the grade,” thus further encouraging student pushout.

“We know that this is not what accountability should look like,” said Dianis.

David Johns, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, said that the conference will provide “an opportunity to learn from best practices.”

“We must do better,” he said. “We need to translate our theoretical goals into policy and into practice.”

Convention proceedings can be followed on twitter using: #wecandobtr

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.