Sean Slade

The Rhetorical Appearance of Toughness?

In-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, long-term suspension, suspension for minor infractions, lack of counseling, adoption of zero-tolerance policies: are these just the rhetorical appearance of toughness instead of what is actually tough to do?

And for what end? To be a deterrent for others? Well if that's the case, it ain't working.

A recent study, "Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students' Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement," by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University highlights just how widespread the issue is and the just how consequential the punishment can be.

For example the study, which followed nearly 1 million Texas public secondary school students for six years, found that

  • Over half of all students had been suspended—either in-school or out-of-school—at least once between 7th and 12th grade.
  • Seventy-five percent of African American students were expelled or suspended, compared to 50 percent of white students.
  • Also, 75 percent of students with disabilities were suspended or expelled, compared with 55 percent of students without a disability.
  • Students classified as having an emotional disturbance were more likely to be suspended or expelled, while students with autism or mental retardation were less likely than students without disabilities to be punished the same way.
  • Fifteen percent of students had been suspended or expelled more than 11 times.
  • A student who was suspended or expelled was then twice as likely to repeat a grade.
  • A student who was suspended or expelled was three times more likely to end up in contact with the juvenile justice system.

The report also found that the vast majority of these suspensions were at the discretion of the school itself and that there was a lack of consistency across sites as to what action should result in a suspension.

Another interesting fact was that 33 percent of those suspended ended up repeating a grade.

This takes on new light when read alongside another report put out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization that puts out the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) results. OECD found that retention on average does not benefit either the student or their learning.

In countries where more students repeat grades, overall performance tends to be lower and social background has a stronger impact on learning outcomes than in countries where fewer students repeat grades. The same outcomes are found in countries where it is more common to transfer weak or disruptive students out of a school. (PISA IN FOCUS, July 2011, page 1)

In addition,

... school systems that seek to cater to different students' needs by having struggling students repeat grades or by transferring them to other schools do not succeed in producing superior overall results. (page 4)

So as we consider our actions and our reactions and their subsequent policies to curb, control, or promote student behavior, let's at least be aware that tougher policies do not equate to better results—not educationally nor behaviorally.

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