Phila. Schools Take a Systematic Route to Better Discipline

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Philadelphia leaders hope that digging into the culture, training, and assistance for schools will help them make headway on one of the thorniest problems facing educators today: curbing schools' use of discipline practices that take students out of the classroom.

Philadelphia is one of many districts nationwide that has been trying to limit out-of-school suspensions and reduce racial gaps among students who receive exclusionary discipline, but results so far have been uneven both in Philadelphia and across the country. Now, the district is launching a series of rapid-fire pilot programs to find ways to speed up and smooth out the transition to better school discipline.

"We found school administrators are coming around to the idea that they need to do something different with school discipline, but teachers don't really feel they have options," said Abigail Gray, a senior researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which is working with the 130,000-student district. "We need to be actively developing those alternatives."

The district is working with schools to quickly identify common hurdles for schools and pilot interventions—generally those that can be turned around in a school year or less—to fix the problems. That iterative process of gathering data to identify where the problem spots are, developing solutions, and testing them is part of the district's focus on continuous improvement of districtwide initiatives, an approach gaining currency in some schools.


See Also: A Primer on Continuous School Improvement


"It's encouraging that Philadelphia is trying to think about these implementation issues in a systematic way," said Anthony Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has been a proponent of continuous-improvement strategies in education. More typically, "somebody creates something, you roll it out wide, and you don't necessarily have evidence that it has worked for anybody in the district. … People are dealing with the problems as they emerge and then just turning to the next big idea."

Suspension Turnaround

Schools in the City of Brotherly Love are under pressure to overhaul a discipline system criticized for disproportionately removing students of color from classes, causing them to miss instruction and fall behind in class. In 2012, the district changed its disciplinary code, barring schools from using out-of-school suspensions for more minor "conduct violations" such as the use of profanity, and limiting it to a last resort for misbehaviors such as playing on a phone in class—with a goal of reserving suspensions for more serious offenses. At the same time, the school system began to roll out a system of positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, in which teachers analyze student data and work together to respond to misbehavior and help students devise and meet behavior goals.

How Schools Fall on the Implementation Spectrum

When Philadelphia called on its schools to limit the use of out-of-school suspensions, the district found some were significantly more effective than others at overhauling their discipline practices.

In partnership with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, the district surveyed teachers and other school staff members on their thoughts about exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions. They also were asked about the level of support they felt they got from principals and their training and opportunities to use other discipline practices, such as positive behavior interventions and supports, or PBIS. The resulting analysis found that the city’s K-5 and K-8 schools generally fell into one of three groups when it came to putting the initiative into practice:

Collaborative schools had high teacher morale, and staff members reported feeling supported by the district to use collaborative discipline approaches, such as comparing a student’s behavior in different classrooms. Staff did not see out-of-school suspensions as effective in changing student behavior, and they were most likely to use nonpunitive discipline.

Reactive schools had teachers who felt they were “on their own” in disciplining students. Even if educators had had training in PBIS, staff members reported viewing suspensions and other exclusionary student discipline practices as essential to “keeping control” in schools.

Noncohesive schools had low teacher morale, high staff turnover, and limited resources. Teachers reported few opportunities to collaborate around student discipline and instead felt blamed by administrators if their students misbehaved. These schools had highly inconsistent practices, using both exclusionary and nonpunitive discipline.

The district did initially reduce both overall out-of-school suspensions and racial gaps but still had a long way to go, according to federal civil rights data. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, the annual number of out-of-school suspensions fell from nearly 17,500 to about 15,000. Black students, who made up 81.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 53 percent of enrollment in 2013-14, accounted for 51 percent of total enrollment and 71 percent of students suspended out of school a year later, in 2015-16.

By contrast, white students made up about 15 percent of students in 2013-14 and 8.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions that year; in 2015-16, white students made up 14 percent of all students, but their out-of-school suspension rate was less than half that.

Progress has been very uneven. Researchers from the Penn consortium and Mathematica Policy Research found that by 2017, five years after the policy change, only 18 percent of schools had eliminated out-of-school suspensions for conduct violations, 17 percent hadn't changed their discipline at all, and the rest had only partially changed their discipline practices. As a result, the Fordham Institute, which published the study, concluded that "trying to fix [discipline disparities] with top-down decrees is impractical and potentially harmful."

To diagnose problem spots in struggling schools, the Penn consortium, in partnership with the district, surveyed teachers and administrators about their ability to understand students' behavior, their ability to respond in different ways to students' misbehavior, and more generally on whether they felt respected by students and supported by their leaders. Then the researchers compared those survey results to other measures of the schools: teacher job satisfaction and student rates of attendance, suspensions, and disciplinary referrals in general. "I am really helping [teachers and leaders] to think about analyzing gaps. Where are places where programs are working and just need more momentum … and where do we need a different approach," the consortium's Gray said.

The quick pilots help school leaders understand their programs more deeply, said Tonya Wolford, the chief of evaluation, research, and accountability for the Philadelphia district. "We really step way back to get the programs to say what [administrators] said they needed to be effective, and what they really did," she said. For example, she added, " 'You said for a program to be effective, you needed 90 percent of teachers to participate in this training; we only have that 50 percent of teachers participated.' It helps us start those conversations." The district will test its first such pilots next year.

To help teachers and administrators in schools where out-of-school suspensions remain the norm, the district this fall will test an intervention designed to build empathy between teachers and students.

For guidance, the district drew on research from experiments at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. Psychologist Jason Okonofua found that a brief, online program to build empathy between teachers and students made both sides feel more respected and halved the suspension rate over a year. Benefits were strongest for students who had previously been suspended.

Upcoming Experiments

Gray worked with Okonofua to adapt the intervention for Philadelphia. This fall, 20 schools will randomly assign some teachers and students to participate in two online training sessions, explaining the concepts of implicit bias and growth mindset, as well as strategies to empathize with others. The sessions will walk students and teachers through scenarios in which both adults and students respond to and reflect on common classroom situations with an eye toward building long-term, respectful relationships.

"Empathic discipline is a good example; it's been rigorously studied but in contexts that aren't as urban," Gray said. "This is about trying to find ways to both choose the right interventions but also figure out a way to implement them in context."

Related Blog

The district doesn't expect it will match the 50 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions that Okonofua found, but the intervention costs little in staff time or money. "We don't see this as the big sweeping answer to these problems, but we see it as a way to gain traction" for changing the discipline culture of schools, Gray said. "We know things that 'work' but need to know how we get them from that point—of having evidence—to the point of being flexibly and well implemented."

Separately, the research partnership is looking at interventions to improve the way educators deal with students who act out because they have been through trauma and discipline training specifically targeting school-based police officers.

"It's hard to shift your focus to more of the process of implementation rather than the idea of, 'Oh, we're doing a program that will help with [a given problem],' " Wolford said. "If we ask questions—is this from an evidence base, is it implemented with fidelity—it's going to be a systematic way to move things forward for kids."

Vol. 37, Issue 31, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: May 16, 2018, as A District Gains Traction for Better Discipline
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