School Climate & Safety

Tensions Accompany Growth of PBIS Discipline Model

By Christina A. Samuels — August 27, 2013 8 min read
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Developers of some school climate reform models say their programs are often bypassed by schools and districts in favor of what they see as specific strategies promoted by a federally funded technical-assistance center.

In 1997, Congress inserted language into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act on the issue of discipline for students with disabilities.

In an attempt to steer schools away from using punishment-based strategies for dealing with such students, the law was revised to say that special education teams should consider “positive behavioral interventions, strategies, and supports” to cut down on problem behavior.

Since then, positive behavior interventions and supports, typically short-handed as PBIS, have spread through thousands of schools in every state, due in large part to the efforts of the federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, whose co-directors have visited hundreds of schools to teach the practices. The center estimates that the research-supported strategies are currently used in nearly 20,000 schools nationwide, with well-documented impact on school safety, student behavior, and academics.

The center defines its work as promoting a framework that schools can use to create effective schoolwide disciplinary practices and then monitor those practices for effectiveness. But some psychologists and researchers who have created their own positive behavioral support models say that the PBIS center’s work is concentrated too heavily on its own vision—to the point that school administrators may not know that other valid, research-based programs exist.

Long-Running Debate

Addressing School Climate

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports focuses on teaching all students what behaviors are expected of them supporting good actions, rather than just punishing bad ones, and frequently monitoring student progress data. Students with more intensive needs are offered a range of research-based interventions. Some programs that offer positive behavior supports to schools include:

Project Achieve
This program has been implemented nationwide since 1990 and is the school improvement model for the Arkansas education department through its ESEA flexibility process.
• Teaches students social skills.
• Uses a data-based assessment process when students are first demonstrating academic or behavioral concerns; supports are provided based on the results of the assessment process.
• Includes school-based and community-based mental-health resources and services for students with intensive needs.

Safe & Civil Schools
In use in 5,000 schools in 44 states, this program has been in place since the early 1980s.
• Offers a program to help teachers create a positive classroom environment.
• Master trainers/consultants skilled in adult learning provide training.
• Offers 20 days of training over three years with school-based leadership teams.

BEST Behavior
BEST (Building Effective Schools Together) Behavior is based on research from the National Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and is used in several California county offices of education and school districts.
• Provides training to teacher teams that create reward systems, choose interventions, and evaluate their efforts.
• Uses a schoolwide reward system to recognize students and teachers.
• Designed to be used in combination with other evidence-based prevention programs.

SOURCE: Education Week

One of the most vigorous critics is Howard M. Knoff, the creator and director of Project Achieve, a comprehensive school improvement program that is used throughout Arkansas, as well as in other districts nationwide. Mr. Knoff has taken his complaints directly to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general, saying that the department is violating its rules against pushing any type of national practice or curriculum. (Though the IDEA says that school personnel can consider practices such as positive behavior supports, it does not require their use.)

But Lawrence J. Wexler, the director of the research-to-practice division of the Education Department’s office of special education programs, responded to Mr. Knoff’s letter to the inspector general in February, reiterating that the center’s work does not promote any curriculum or specific set of practices.

“There’s a very clear prohibition in the laws authorizing the department that there could be no national curriculum of any kind,” Mr. Wexler said in an interview. What the department can do is provide help to entities that choose to implement certain programs on their own, he said.

Mr. Knoff remains unconvinced, saying that the inspector general’s office should do its own investigation, rather than relying on the word of the same officials who oversee the work of the center. And, whether the technical assistance center wants to call its program a framework or not, the center is still promoting “a relatively lockstep approach,” he said.

The dissent over what PBIS is and isn’t has been simmering for years.

Randy Sprick, the creators of Safe & Civil Schools, a positive behavioral support and intervention program in use in 5,000 schools nationwide, wrote a letter in 2010 to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Alexa Posny, who at the time oversaw the office of special education and rehabilitative services, expressing similar concerns that the center’s work was confusing to school administrators.

Ms. Posny responded that the department does not promote any particular implementation method “and places no restrictions on the PBIS approach that states, local districts, schools, or other entities may purchase and use.” Mr. Sprick added that information to the Safe & Civil Schools website under a headline that reads, in part, “Now We Are All PBIS!” But the misconception remains, he said.

“There’s nothing on [the technical assistance center website] that really says that there are lot of approaches,” Mr. Sprick said. “It would make sense that they do some publicizing of other models that are out there and their efficacy. I’d love to see the ... center doing some consumer help.”

These are complaints that Robert H. Horner, a co-director of the PBIS center, has heard before. The center website has a page devoted to “history, defining features, and misconceptions” about PBIS, where it addresses the perception that it provides a specific model for schools to follow.

The work of the center is a shift from packaged programs. Instead, it asks schools to adopt core educational and behavior support features, Mr. Horner said. For example, the center says that all schools should create a small set of schoolwide social expectations, but how school administrators choose to implement that work is up to them.

Rodney Moore, the principal of the 670-student Nathaniel Rochester School No. 3 in Rochester, N.Y., has presented on positive behavioral supports with Mr. Horner. He believes the framework will work as well in the high-poverty K-8 school he started leading a few weeks ago as it did in the more affluent middle school in suburban Washington, where he worked previously. It’s just a matter of learning about the culture of the new environment, and what the students will respond to. “It really can look so dramatically different, depending on where you are,” Mr. Moore said.

Mr. Horner said that there’s a balance that he and other PBIS trainers must navigate when teaching schools and districts about positive behavioral support strategies. “If you are not clear, they think they’ll just use the word ‘PBIS’ and do whatever they want. If you’re too prescriptive, you’ll find something that works for those schools in which those prescriptions are a nice fit—and it’ll be a flop everywhere else.”

Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions, an approach that has its roots in special education, has quickly expanded from its original focus on students with disabilities.

From the Education Department’s perspective, while schools were being asked to support students with the most-challenging behaviors, those same schools lacked a basic structure that spelled out for all students how they were expected to behave, and also delivered effective consequences, officials wrote in a recent Federal Register notice. The technical-assistance center, first funded in 1997 and renewed twice after, has reached the end of its five-year grant cycle. The department plans to award a new five-year grant of about $8.5 million, starting in fiscal 2013.

The office of special education programs says the technical-assistance center is a place where schools and districts could learn about improving climate on a schoolwide basis. A great deal of research in this area and featured on the center’s website has been conducted by Mr. Horner and by George Sugai, also a co-director of the technical-assistance center and a professor of special education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

PBIS also has been written into other department initiatives as an encouraged practice, including Race to the Top, the federal competitive-grant program aimed at promoting education redesign in the states. Schools and districts are allowed to use Title I and IDEA funding to pay for positive behavioral support strategies. The Obama administration’s proposed budget also sets aside $50 million to help 8,000 schools create more nurturing school climates, in part through the use of positive behavioral support strategies.

The center’s work has its critics.

George Bear, a professor in the school of education at the University of Delaware in Newark, says the center’s focus on student behavior does not offer enough focus on helping students develop intrinsic motivation, instead of simply responding to praise or rewards.

Screening Issue

In addition to his concerns that the center’s work is seen as an official implementation model, Mr. Knoff says he has concerns with practices he believes are harmful to students, such as steering students who need more support to interventions before validating the results of the screening tools designed to identify them. Also, he believes that students who are identified as needing more support should have fast access to diagnostic assessments to ensure that the interventions are the right ones, rather than playing what he described as “intervention roulette.” Mr. Horner said that the center does advocate multiple sources of assessment for students.

Other experts see the PBIS center’s work as providing openings for other research-based approaches to school climate.

David Osher, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research in Washington and an expert in social-emotional learning, said he is enthusiastic about the center’s work.

“They have been very open to thinking about ways that social-emotional learning can be included in what they’re doing,” Mr. Osher said, as well as other approaches to helping students develop empathy. At the same time, he acknowledged that the federal resources make the center a major player in the field of school climate programs. “The work of the center is sufficiently generic; ultimately, it may embrace many things, but it can push out other things, unintentionally,” he said.

The Institute of Education Sciences, which is the Education Department’s research arm, is embarking on a project that will attempt to nail down best practices in PBIS implementation. In the meantime, in the field, at least some educators are finding that a mix-and-match approach works best for them.

Colleen Riley, the director of special education in Kansas, says that the federal center has been a valuable resource for the state’s multi-tiered systems of supports, which blends academic and behavioral support for students. So has Safe & Civil Schools, which has been implemented in some districts, and other programs, she said.

“We haven’t subscribed to a one size fits all,” Ms. Riley said. “You need to have a framework that has multiple components, that has a continuum of supports.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Stacked Deck Seen In Growth of PBIS


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