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Going deep on Minneapolis schools’ suspension crisis

There is a very opinionated education policy blogger — from Baltimore, no less — keeping tabs on the over-suspension crisis in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). And, while it chaps my competitive hide to admit it, he’s doing a better job than the locals.

RiShawn Biddle is the force behind Dropout Nation, a website and podcast where the American Spectator contributor and former Indianapolis Star editorialist tracks numerous education issues.

If you are tracking efforts by MPS and other Minnesota districts to curb shocking disparities in punitive school discipline, you’ll want to spend a little time with Biddle’s writing. He has dissected MPS’ response to the problem—and to the heat the Obama Administration has brought to bear on it—with a level of depth no local writer has so much as approached.

This week, Biddle has a lengthy piece up that calls Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s announcement that members of her staff will review nonviolent suspensions of African American, Latino and Native American students going forth.

The announcement came as MPS was preparing to approve a “voluntary compliance agreement” with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which has been investigating the racial disparities.

Last year, the district suspended or expelled 4,896 students: 3,801 African-Americans, 372 American Indians, 292 Latinos and 328 whites. All but 5 percent of the suspensions were for disruptive or disorderly conduct.

Black and brown students are disproportionately tracked into special education under catchall diagnoses that include defiant or stubborn behavior. Often they are segregated into isolated classrooms or buildings. Few graduate.

To those grim statistics Biddle adds some more that will leave you gasping for air. The files that will cross the desks of Johnson’s team will not include the staggeringly disparate number of police arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system, he notes. Nor has local coverage noted the even greater gaps for children of color in special education:

“2.6 percent of Native kids attending the…district’s schools, along with 1.3 percent of black peers, were either referred to juvenile courts or arrested, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s higher than the two-tenths of 1 percent of white kids, four-tenths of 1 percent of Asian and white schoolmates either referred or arrested. The good news is that none of these kids were arrested.

“The juvenile court referrals and law enforcement arrests are especially high for black and Native kids condemned to Minneapolis’ special education ghettos. 18.3 percent of black kids in special ed, along with 11.1 percent of Native peers were either referred or arrested in 2011-2012. This was higher than the 2.4 percent of Latino and white students in special ed, along with 3.2 percent of Asian schoolmates referred or arrested.

RiShawn Biddle
RiShawn Biddle

“On average, 6.6 percent of Minneapolis’ special ed students were referred or arrested, a rate nine times higher than the eight-tenths of 1 percent average for kids in regular classrooms. Reviewing suspensions alone isn’t enough to address the totality of the district’s school discipline issues.” 

Depressed? There’s more. Biddle calls Johnson’s announcement that suspensions of children of color a step in the right direction, but says it’s not nearly enough.

For starters, he argues that white children should have been included: “No child, regardless of their background, should be subjected to harsh discipline that is inappropriate for the behavioral issue at hand.”

Beyond that, he makes an observation that’s not unlike one voiced at Monday’s MPS school board meeting by outgoing board member Mohamud Noor: “The review will likely involve staffers who have been as much a culprit in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions in the first place; unless Johnson launches a division staffed by outsiders who can take a fresh look at how school leaders and teachers mete out discipline, the review process will just be a rubber stamp of status quo actions.”

And speaking of fresh looks, Biddle has thoughts about the roots of the problem that few have dared whisper here. Behavioral challenges will continue until MPS does a better job teaching its students to read, he predicts. 

As was reported in this space over the summer, a scathing audit of MPS’ special education programming noted that the district is failing its disabled learners in part because it is failing a majority of its students in basic literacy. This in turn sets them up for more failure: If you can’t read by third grade, the rest of school is nigh impossible.

Here, too, Biddle’s got the goods. In a study released in 2006, the dean of Stanford University’s education school and a doctoral candidate found a direct correlation between illiteracy and problem behavior in first, third and fifth grades, he reported.

(Others have characterized this correlation as a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, with the two deficits serving as reinforcing catalysts. And, not that anyone ever asks, but frequently it jibes with the kids’ descriptions of the experience. 

And if that’s not enough, Biddle has some thoughts on MPS’ reading curriculum. Now most of you out there in the cheap seats probably did not realize that the REAL controversy in education is over the teaching of reading.

Proponents of an approach often referred to as “whole language” advocate giving students good works at their reading level; a passion for learning, the theory goes, will take over. The other side would teach phonemic awareness and other skills that allow kids to deconstruct words, sentences and passages.

Why not teach both is a good question—for another day. And is actually at the heart of much of the din about the Common Core State Standards. For now know that it’s like the Sharks and the Jets except the word pedagogy gets thrown around a lot.

Biddle has thoughts on MPS’ “guided reading” curriculum, which boil down to: You’re not gonna get there from here. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re interested enough to visit Dropout Nation for the longer version.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/14/2014 - 11:59 am.

    fire teacher

    No child…should be subjected to harsh discipline that is inappropriate for the behavioral issue at hand.” Amen. Any teacher that is doing this should be fired. That being said, basing discipline on race is racist. What the Minneapolis school district is doing, by reviewing the discipline of children for only those who are children of color, is racist.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/14/2014 - 03:51 pm.

    Not quite in agreement

    …with Ms. Kohls. What we’re talking about is suspension. It’s my understanding – and was the practice in my Missouri school district – that teachers don’t have the requisite authority to suspend a student. Those decisions are made by administrators, typically building principals, who recommend (or not) suspension to the school board. The board, at least in my district, had the final authority, though in practice, the principal could send someone home for a couple days – I think 3 was the maximum. Anything longer than that required board action. In any case, it’s not the teachers doing the suspending, so firing a bunch of teachers doesn’t strike me as a reasonable way to approach the issue.

    Otherwise, yes. Of course, basing discipline on race is, ipso facto, racist. The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that black kids suffer disproportionately from chaotic, poverty-tinged home situations (Remember, I did *not* say “all.” I said “disproportionately.”), in many cases brought about by unemployed or underemployed parents, absent parents, and a host of other socioeconomic ills that largely stem from a long history in a community that has, historically, been rather heavily segregated. There’s plenty of data – some of it has been on MinnPost – to show concentrations of poverty and race that, superimposed one over the other, almost perfectly match. That doesn’t happen by accident, it happens because of conscious choices by communities and their elected officials.

    One obvious example is the “gated ‘community’,” which is sending an unmistakeable message to the neighbors: “Go away.” Perhaps less obviously, if a community adopts zoning regulations that prohibit, or unduly burden, specific kinds of housing (e.g. Section 8, multifamily rental, etc.), or that set standards for minimum lot size or square footage that rule out any but upper-income, single-family detached homes, it’s practicing “social engineering” on a community-wide scale, and in doing so effectively segregating itself. Economic bigotry is not synonymous with racial prejudice, but the two have a fairly close correlation, and the former – in my view, at least – is just as odious as the latter.

    When you come from a home environment where “decorum” is a foreign concept, classroom behavior conducive to learning will be difficult to master. I had numerous very good black students who came from less-than-ideal home environments, but they were notable in large part because they did not fit a stereotype that already existed a generation ago.

    I’d be very interested in seeing the comparative suspension rates for children of color in the more-affluent suburban districts that surround the Twin Cities. If they’re quite similar, we’d learn something of value. If they’re notably dissimilar, we’d also learn something of value.

    Always allowing for exceptions, my experience was that, even in high school, boys had a harder time with “decorum” than did girls, regardless of race or ethnicity. The behavioral divide seemed to be based more on socioeconomic class than on race, and what’s happening here strikes me, still something of an outsider at only 5 years of residence, as a kind of negative feedback loop.

    Segregated housing, poverty, a long cultural tradition of indifference to academic achievement (not limited to minorities, by the way), a demonstrated tendency on the part of local law enforcement to invoke the rules far more often, and more harshly, than it does with people of paler hue, makes stable incomes and stable home lives vastly more difficult. That makes “good” school behavior more difficult. That makes graduation with decent grades and recommendations more difficult, which makes getting one of those fabled “good” jobs more difficult, poverty more likely, low-cost, usually segregated, housing more likely, and so on. If this were an easy problem to solve, I think the Twin Cities would have done it by now, but there’s quite a bit of denial in and among many of the business and civic leaders in the area.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/14/2014 - 04:22 pm.

    A special superintendent’s review only of the discipline actions for children of color, but not for Asian or white children, is not only racist, it is probably unconstitutional (according to some legal experts). So, this is a political, not a reasoned, decision to make.

    Beth Hawkins, and her faraway web hero on MPS affairs, had best look closely at the slippery elements in correlation of figures: correlation does not imply causation. Put up raw, uncontextualized numbers here and anyone would say “Wow! So many more kids of color disciplined! Must be teacher bias [that’s the implied accusation in all this discussion].”

    We must begin to talk socioeconomic class issues, and cultural issues: What do these kids bring with them to school that makes them so belligerent as four- and five-year-olds? Why are they acting out in ways that disrupt learning for everyone in the class? Everyone admits that the kids who are suspended are disruptive (if not always physically violent). Can someone please begin also to address that problem?

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