The School To Prison Pipeline-Suspensions

Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the school to prison pipe line debate.  This interest developed after conference presentation in which the presenter linked number of days suspended to future jail time, the connection being that because students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of high school, they are also more likely to end up in jail. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/) and (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/link-between-suspension-and-dropout-robyn-gee)

I think think there’s  very interesting theoretical framework-in which students are made docile or incarcerated-it all sounds very Foucault.  I’ve ordered a  few books about it and plan to write more about it in the future-but what I am most interested in this post is the idea of suspensions.    School districts are moving away from suspensions as a form of punishment because they disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.  So that’s why large school districts such as LA Unified to smaller districts no longer allow suspensions for “defiance” and made commitments to cut their suspension rates in half.   The thinking is that the less students are suspended, the more likely they are to graduate, and if they graduate, they’ll likely not to be incarcerated.

Like anything in education,  it sounds great-who knew that you could alter the life of an individual just by NOT suspending?    But of course, it doesn’t really address the point that people end up of dropping out of high school because of the behavior that lead to the suspension, not because of the suspension itself.    The weakness of the plan is the flaw of most secondary school interventions-the powers that be can’t imagine that a student has agency -and therefore, student behavior is completely dependent on what teachers (the people who see them  for just an hour a day)and the school do or don’t do.   In this way of thinking, undesirable behavior becomes  at best the teacher’s challenge and at worst, the teacher’s fault.   On the more innocuous end of the spectrum,   if a student has behavioral issues,  teachers have to outline what other “interventions” they have tried before referring a student to the principal-so they’ll ask,  have you talked to them?  changed their seat?  given them a detention?  contacted their parents?  etc.    Simultaneously, teachers are also discouraged from reporting smaller infractions to the principal, because then the principal thinks they lack “classroom management”.On the far end of the spectrum is actual blame put on the teacher.

For example,  during my second year of teaching,  a student tampered with my bottle of water and put hand sanitizer  in it.  I almost drank it,  luckily another student warned me .  As you can imagine, I found the whole thing very upsetting-I expect to deal with many things during the course of my day-but I don’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be poisoned.   After an investigation, my principal blamed me for the incident, telling me that it would never have happened if I hadn’t left my water out for a student to tamper with, and that in the future, I should be more careful.     There also seemed to be the underlying assumption that  the student wouldn’t have victimized me if they had liked me more,  so it’s was also my fault because I hadn’t built enough rapport with them.  Clearly the student was deeply troubled, the problem is that because I was blamed, the student didn’t receive the intervention they so desperately needed.     By minimizing dangerous student behavior-it only puts the student more at risk, because the underlying problem isn’t addressed.    I’ve had colleagues pushed and punched by students,   and then told it was their fault for not moving out of the way,   then are discouraged from filing police reports.

Which brings me to my second point, schools don’t write laws for the juvenile justice, nor do they get to define what constitutes “criminal behavior” – yet, criminal activity is happening in public schools.   Whether it is drug dealing ,  weapons,  gang activity.    It’s already happening-it’s not like the school system is producing people who will have problems with the criminal justice system-students are already having problems when they come to school.     I think that says more about the shortcomings of our criminal justice system than it does about education.  Poor students are jailed for fighting and for drug use, while well-off kids get to go to rehab or a special camp.   Schools are put in a moral quandary–do they turn in the kid who brought a weapon to school when they’re close to graduation? When they know the reason why the kid is bringing a weapon to school- maybe they have to walk through rival gang territory,  some other kid threatened them or their parent is abusive?  Do they really want to involve the police?    Or do they pretend they didn’t see it and assign a detention for being out of class for too long?   If they do call the police,  there’s the guilt of wondering how they failed that student,  were there warning signs?  Is there something else the school should have done?   It’s  exactly these kinds of questions that make the discipline system unreliable.  Schools struggle with remaining flexible,  while also providing pathways for students to make better decisions, to own their choices, without sending a kid to jail.

Moreover, the criminal justice system is making incursions into public education, and not just probation officers.   Teachers are encouraged to help identify gang members so they can become “certified”.  Ostensibly, this so the student can receive additional support and services, but the unintended consequence is that once a minor is certified as a gang member,  it will add enhancement charges to future crimes, so that they end up spending more time in Juvey and less time in school.

So we seem to be at odds- the primary function of a school is educate students,   the primary function of the juvenile justice system to is to punish and rehabilitate.    Neither system is equipped to ameliorate the underlying conditions that impact children-issues like poverty, homelessness,  the failing foster system, abuse,  and addiction.

I have talked about troubled students, I haven’t talked about all of the other students in the room-the 35 other students who don’t feel the need to interrupt class, who respond to normal interventions, who aren’t hitting their teachers, or dealing drugs on campus.    The lack of effective behavioral interventions puts these students at risk.    If students see another student hit a teacher, and nothing really happens-why would they feel safe on campus?  Why would they think that the school could do anything about a kid threatening them?  Why would they think that reporting crimes happening on campus is useful?   Here’s what’s fascinating to me- by not actually dealing with students as though they do have choices,  and by minimizing behavior-schools actually perpetuate criminalization.   When people who are hurt are blamed,  it perpetuates the whole “snitches get stitches” mentality-by minimizing drug dealing on campus,  the school is giving the drug dealer a market,  it’s guaranteeing that other kids are getting high, and subsequently getting into trouble, and therefore are not in the classroom.  So the question becomes, in secondary education-how do you balance safety  with the morality of criminalizing teenagers and the fact that everyone, including those 35 other students, has a right to a quality education?

Furthermore,  I have to point out that education is NOT The same thing as social activism.   Yes, education can change people’s perspective.   Yes, caring adults can work together with students,  and students can and do make better choices.     Yes, students should have access to other kinds of learning environments, where they can supported and learn in smaller classes. Yes, the majority of kids mess up when they’re teenagers, and turn out to be amazing adults.    Yes, every teenagers deserves a second and a third and a fourth and a fifth chance, and compassion and understanding and kindness.   However,  schools should not and cannot be burdened with not only teaching content, and providing cursory services and nutrition for students- but also being the ONLY safety net a child has, and the only thing that can possibly save a student from a life of crime or death or worse.    What schools are equipped to do is educate people.   There is no easy solution-but it would make more sense, if there was a third party involved-that was neither school nor police-that provided psychological, family and nutrition services for youth and families, that way people would stop confusing a failure of society, and the dearth of social services with a failure of education.

10 Reasons Why Teacher Tenure Matters(TLDR?)

Almost every time I go to a party, a bbq or on a date,  people ask me what I do.   When I reluctantly admit to be a high school teacher,  they  say something like:   “The problem with education is that we can’t fire bad teachers—oh but I’m sure you’re  different because you’re a good teacher.”   While  I always ask how they can be sure(and they assume that I am joking)I am left to conclude that having due process before you’re fired is a foreign concept to most people.     Right now there’s a lawsuit in Los Angeles http://www.newsmax.com/US/California-lawsuit-tenure-teachers/2014/02/04/id/550924/ about teacher tenure.   In Vergara v California  a telecom mogul and a former solicitor general are arguing that  teacher tenure is a civil rights violation of low income students because it subjects them to bad teachers.   According to the Students Matter Website teacher tenure is bad because:

  1. Permanent status is granted after two years of service-right as new teachers are  finishing their beginning teacher support programs.
  2. There is no effective way to dismiss a teacher-they claim that only 91 teachers have been dismissed in California in the last ten years.
  3. The Last In, First Out(or LIFO) statutes are bad because they turn teachers into “faceless seniority numbers”.   They go on to say that ” The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority.” http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-summary/#sthash.qTRuukOd.dpuffaceless seniority numbers. The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority. – See more at: http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-summary/#sthash.qTRuukOd.dpu

Their assertions are misleading and patently false.   For example, while it is true that it is possible to get  permanent status (or teacher tenure) after only two years-in the current economic climate it is highly unlikely.    Many new teachers are hired as “Temporary” employees, not “Probationary”.      If a new teacher is hired as temporary,  their contract ends after a year and they don’t have to be rehired by the district.    Even if they do have probationary status,  new teachers are often laid off or pink slipped at the end of the year because of budget problems.  As there is no guarantee of a job,  they might look to another district-which means their tenure clock starts all over again.

As to the second point-this is just  false.    While I am guessing it is true that 91 teachers have been fired across the state for egregious conduct, what the number isn’t taking into account is how many teachers received non reelection notices.   When you are a probationary teacher,  you can be let go at any point, without cause.   It is called a “Non Re Elect”.   It just means that rather than granting  permanent status, the district is taking a pass.   I know that far more than 91 non re elects  have been issued in the last two years; they’re common.     Furthermore, what the 91 teachers number isn’t taking into account is how many teachers took the option of resigning rather than being fired-this option, except in the worst cases, is almost always offered.   The fact is that teachers can and are fired-after due process. Which leads to the question of why do teachers have tenure anyway?

1. Grades: there is a belief that teachers “give” grades to students-if a student fails-and can’t play their sport the next year, even though they’re a star player, or gets an A- and their parents think they won’t get into Harvard- it becomes the teacher’s fault.     Oftentimes, we are pressured to change the grade, or give the student more assignments to bring up their grade,  or assign an extra credit poster their parent can complete for them.   Really, this is a larger discussion about grades, and how the prevailing belief seems to be if a student does all the work they should have an A.  Nevertheless, parent pressure can be intense.

2. Older Teachers:  someone who has been teaching for a while makes almost twice as much as a first year teacher. No matter how good the more experienced teacher is, it’s more economical to hire new people for less pay.     There’s something inherently ageist about the way older teachers are characterized-which is surprising because we know how deeply valued and respected older women are in our society.     Maybe I am cynical,  but in my experience teachers are labeled “Passionate” because they never say no(because they want to make a good impression)  and “Motivating”  because they are willing to try any new scheme which is really an old scheme rebranded suggested by a consultant(because they are afraid of getting fired).     I have to say out of all the reasons against teacher tenure, LIFOs is the one that touches me the most.  I was laid off every year-for six years.    While I have always ended up with a job,  going on job interviews  and sending out resumes made for a stressful summer. I’d lay awake in bed and wonder  if this was the year that I would not find a teaching job.   My entire life would be up in the air for months. Never once did I think that I was somehow more deserving of job than my teacher mentor or the woman who had been hired a year ahead of me.   Nor did I see tenure as the problem.     However, what was/is the problem,  is a system that can’t figure out how it will fund it schools.   The cheapest solution is to have a constant revolving door of low paid teachers.

3. The contract: Many people view teaching as an interesting hobby-or like the teacher is a missionary-and not truly dedicated to their students unless they are willing to work for free.  I have no interest in sounding like a martyr,  but most teachers work for free anyway, grading on the weekend and on vacations, lesson planning in the evenings etc. We are not salaried employees, we are paid by the hour, and we are not paid over the summer. For additional work, teachers with tenure are able to say, “you know, that’s not part of contracted hours, and we should be paid” without fear of being seen as a troublemaker,  or that they don’t truly care about the children.  Imagine a Lawyer not being able to bill their hours-and then having someone say, “you’don’t really like your clients or believe in law because you want to be paid, maybe you should find a different profession.”

4. Politics- I know that many people see education as a bastion of liberal brainwashing. But, it cuts both ways, there are liberal and conservative teachers-there are teachers that wear hijabs, teachers that wear skullcaps-teachers that are catholic, teachers that are evangelical-my point is that teachers shouldn’t be fired for not absolutely reflecting the values or dominant religion of the community they are working in-which is how teacher tenure got started anyway.

5. The Union: I have many friends on facebook who don’t like unions-keep in mind that the teacher’s union fights for teacher’s working conditions-which are your children’s learning environments- the union consistently fights for smaller class sizes, librarians, speech therapists, special education programs, music, professional development and building improvements-all of which benefit children. If teachers don’t have tenure, they will not be able to participate in the union, without fear of getting fired.   Yes, the union does represent teachers who have been accused of terrible conduct.   However, that is part of due process,  and if they didn’t provide the representation, the Union could get sued.

6. It’s more democratic: The second thing that I love most about my job is the collaboration between teachers, administrators, students and parents. For the majority of my teaching career, I have been lucky enough to work with talented administrators, supportive coworkers, and dedicated parents. The local control of schools is based on a democratic model, in which interested parties come to decisions that are in the best interests of the students and the community. Yet, since I have been teaching, there has been a been a movement to a top down approach- in which appointed national officials, and people outside of the community and the classroom make sweeping decisions to change education. School board members, admin, parents, and educators are told what to do by people who are not part of the community.    How can you become an interested party, unless you have a vested interest and a history with the school?

7. Follow the Money: David Welch is funding this lawsuit- why would a telecommunications CEO be interested in teacher tenure? Could it be that his telecommunications company would benefit from more online schools with classes taught by teachers without tenure or even certification? So much of what is happening in education has very little to do with student learning or improving education, but has everything to do with privatizing education and outsourcing to tech companies who are looking for emerging markets.    A couple of years ago, I went to a talk about educational reform featuring Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnston, tellingly sponsored by the UC Davis School of Management.    The business people there openly talked about how they could participate in this “market”.    One thing you  might not have considered about Common Core implementation is the money that textbook companies like Pearson(who funded the CC in part) and technology companies like Apple stand to make from “Reform”.    Since the new tests have to be taken on computers,  California is granting 1.25 billion dollars to buy computers just so students will be able to take the test in the same testing window.   http://edsource.org/2013/torlakson-calls-for-giving-school-districts-more-money-for-common-core/54407#.UykWVF5RHX0  Wouldn’t you love to be the  computer company that gets that contract?

8. Content vs Skillz:  The business leaders trying to change education today do not value content, but rather skill sets. While I know it’s important for graduates to be able to read workplace documents- I also value the life of the mind. Many educational “entrepreneurs” have a narrow, unimaginative view of what life will be like for graduates-a life in which they never pick up a novel, go to a concert, develop an interest in history, are moved by art, or watch a movie for an emotional experience.   In their thinking,  a scientist will never want to participate kin community theater, or play a musical instrument. A mathematician will never be interested in writing a poem. Apparently, almost everything I am supposed to do in an English classroom involves teaching “Skillz”(sic). It’s not about literature anymore, but whether or not a student can categorize information,  highlight documents  or repeat detailed instructions and arguments-it’s about distilling everything down to a basic function-because otherwise students will “never use it”.  While students may make better workplace drones, I am not certain they will make better citizens of a democracy.

9. It’s good for the community: I love living in the community I work for. I develop relationships with families and students. Sometimes, I have a teacher/parent conference in line at target. Overall, being known by families and siblings makes me a more effective teacher because I am not new every year. Stability in teachers at schools means that there’s continuity and trust.

10.  Teacher Retention:   Did you know that statewide nearly a third of teachers quit after the first four years and that in low income schools, that number is closer to 50%?   I would submit that the problem isn’t an overabundance of bad teachers, but rather a constant influx of overwhelmed,  inexperienced teachers who become demoralized and then quit before they can actually perfect their craft. If low income schools are already losing half of their teachers,  what is the impetus to fire even more?