It’s Real World Wednesday again and did you know that black students are suspended or expelled from school at three times the rate of white students?! And this startling disparity in school discipline starts early. As you can see below, while Black children comprise only 18% of all preschoolers, they make up almost half of all out-of-school suspensions.
What’s driving this inequity? According to many researchers, implicit bias is heavily implicated. As stated in this Issue Brief on the implications of implicit bias in early childhood care and education: “Black boys are often viewed by teachers as unruly and aggressive, which biases, often unconsciously, how they are supported academically or disciplined.”
Researchers have also cited the disparate impact of zero-tolerance policies that “criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school” (ACLU, 2015).
Weighing in on this important topic, this Real World Wednesday we’re hearing from Tommy Micah and Trilce Marquez.
Trilce is a 4th grade teacher in New York City. She has been teaching for nine years and has taught grades 1-4 in both district and charter schools. And she loves kid jokes almost more than the kids do. And Tommy is dean of students at Achievement First Endeavor Elementary School where he says his job is to, “make school fun, keep kids safe, and keep parents happy”. In his work, Tommy coaches teachers in taxonomy and school culture while also behaviorally supporting scholars in need. Tommy works closely with parents and teachers to ensure scholars have the best academic experience while also learning what it takes to be the future leaders of our world.
We asked them, in your work, what do you see driving the preschool-to-prison pipeline?
Here are their incredibly insightful responses:
I’ve worked in several different educational settings–from a zero tolerance, no excuses school to a classroom without any structured disciple system set up. No matter what classroom or school I’ve been in, one thing has always been true: students are going to have great days and moments, and days or moments when they struggle. So will I. But, something that has been different depending on the setting has been the trauma that individual students have experienced because of the way the discipline systems in place are implemented. When students are penalized for minor infractions like having their eyes off their books during a 20 minute independent reading block, or not being able to repeat an answer that another student has given, students are often only left with the disappointment of being unable to get it (their behavior) right. That hard line is very difficult for students to maintain and the feeling that things don’t feel fair can often cause students to push back. These students, the ones who are often asking us to become better educators by broadening our ideas of what it looks like, sounds like and feels like to pay attention, learn, work and play in school are then often suspended or expelled.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen a lack of any consistent discipline confuse students about what behavior is “allowed” in what contexts. Students and teachers feel surprised when there is an explosion of emotion– from either the student or the teacher–about behaviors that are happening that haven’t been addressed before. Calling out in class often makes me think of how easy it is to not hold students to the same standard, and then feel frustrated when they do exactly what we’ve shown it’s okay to do. When I find myself feeling frustrated and getting ready to give a student consequence for calling out, it’s on me to calm down and think back through the day (or even the mini-lesson) to see how often I’ve actually reminded students of the expectation that they shouldn’t call out. If I haven’t been consistent in making sure students aren’t calling out and all of a sudden the noise level begins to drive me crazy, it isn’t fair to start giving consequences to the next few students calling out. When I’m not having honest conversations with students about the behaviors (and being honest about my role in those behaviors), it can feel hard on both ends to know and follow any set of expectations.
But therein lies the real culprit that I’ve seen driving the preschool-to-prison pipeline. In both kinds of school, teachers aren’t talking about race and racism. Teachers, administrators, staff–there isn’t a dialogue about how we are seeing, talking to and disciplining our students of color in comparison to our white students. We aren’t looking at our assumptions, examining data about white and non-white student discipline, and acknowledging that no matter who we are, we always bring something to our interactions with others. Without these conversations, there can be no change in how we respond to students.
We have all seen and know the mounds of statistics as it relates to the school-to-prison pipeline. We know that Black and Brown students are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. We know that 70% of “in-school” arrests are of Black and Brown students. We also know that over 68% of the male prison population lacks a high school diploma. Where did our schools and communities fail these students? From my experience, I believe one cause is the one size fits all and zero tolerance discipline systems.
As any teacher can tell you, no two students are alike. We differentiate our teaching to meet the needs of all our students. For some, through IEPs, we are legally required to provide systematic and differentiated support. But when it comes to discipline and behavior, it’s frequently different. If we know this, and do it to teach, why do our behavior systems not reflect this?
So, now what? In focusing on solutions, we must empower teachers to change a key mindset. Students don’t act out to be bad, stop your lesson, or otherwise raise our blood pressure! First our students are not simply a statistic, grade, headache, or number on a roster. They are people. People with names, emotions, interests, joys, and worries. We must see, know, and believe that the misaligned behavior is due to a student’s lagging skills. We must show empathy and work with the student and family to replace the misbehavior with a more appropriate classroom behavior. What will this take? Lots.
First, teachers must collaborate in deciding what the misaligned behavior is and its cause. Teachers must share best practices in working with the individual child. Before that, teachers must listen. Empathize with a student having a difficult time. Be their hero who’s there to support them and believes that they can and will fix it. And, teachers must believe that the best place for the student to fix the behavior is in the classroom. However, the school is not a silo. Most importantly, this is not just the teachers. This is the school community. From principal, to dean, to art teacher, to family. The entire village must know and believe we can change behavior by taking the time to differentiate and explicitly teach to our vision for excellence in class and life.
Yes, it’s a lot. We are people. We don’t change behavior in a day. But, school communities can work to dry the faucet in the school-to-prison pipeline by refocusing on the cause of misbehavior and supportively teaching the agreed upon correct behavior.
It may be easy in the moment to have the student out of our class, out of our school, so our other students can learn. But, as educators and a community, we must always remember. Remember that, not just that child, but our whole society will feel the consequences. As teachers, we come to teach all kids. But, we fail when not all kids can come to school.
In the spirit of the critical reflection that Tommy and Trilce have modeled for us, we invite you to take a few moments to take the Implicit Association Test, reflect on the results, and start a conversation with a colleague or friend about them. Dismantling the preschool-to-prison pipeline starts with us. Happy Real World Wednesday and a big thanks to Trilce and Tommy for inviting us into such an important conversation!