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Simplistic Quick Fixes Won't Stop the School to Prison Pipeline

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NPR's Wade Goodwyn in "Why Some Schools Want to Expel Suspensions," reported that Los Angeles schools banned suspensions for "willful defiance of authority." Goodwyn then left the impression that a single suspension often sets poor children of color down the path to educational failure. He asked Daniel Losen of the UCLA Civil Rights Project whether such a suspension could lead to a student dropping out. Losen replied that it is "associated" with a doubled risk of dropping out.

Suspensions are correlated with educational failure. On the other hand, too many administrators and policy wonks believe that suspensions are a primary cause of students dropping out. (emphasis is mine) Too many "reformers" believe that the problem is not generations of oppression, but callous educators who punish students for rebelling against ineffective classroom instruction.

As I will explain, poor instruction, racial insensitivity, and outmoded policies all contribute to educational failure. The blame game, however, will not produce solutions.

NPR's Goodwyn noted that in the 1970s, black students were slightly more likely to be suspended, but now 25% of black middle and high school students are suspended at least once. When you consider all of the tragedies that went into producing that statistic, it becomes unclear whether it is a surprisingly high or low number. In fact, Losen acknowledges that the damage done by suspensions is partially due to the lack of supervision that results from the students being children of single parents.

In 1970, 30% of blacks lived in single families. By 2010, 72% of black children were born to unwed mothers. This should not be seen as a morality play. But, we must look unflinchingly at the whole complex of problems if we hope to improve poor schools. We should not ignore the reality of that 71% of high school dropouts and 85% of youths in prison came from single parent families. These are all reasons why schools must provide a comprehensive set of supports for poor children, and why quick fixes like the banning of suspensions are not a solution.

The key association is between educational failure and the decline of industrial jobs which began after the 1970s Energy Crisis, and which was accelerated in the 1980s by Reaganomics, and afterwards, by financial engineering which made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Prisons themselves may be the bigger factor than suspensions in filling the prison pipeline. Before the prison-building boom and the War on Drugs in the 1980s, 10% of black high school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, 37% were. This means that more black children, who are more likely to be at risk for suspension, are less likely to have the mentorship at home that is necessary to learn how to succeed at school.

Let me be clear. The problem is not race or even poverty, any more that it is the occasional suspension for disrupting class. The school to prison pipeline is a legacy of brutal oppression and an economy that has become increasingly inequitable.

I oppose data-driven efforts to reform disciplinary policies when they are based on simplistic statistics. More importantly, I oppose bans on suspensions for defiance of authority not because they are too hard on teachers.

I oppose those silver bullets because they are too soft on the problem.

In fact, Losen may eventually regret that he let the Los Angeles schools off so easily. Dollars to donuts, many schools will adopt the perennial quick fix of simply blaming teachers and letting chaotic school environments get worse.

We educators must be honest with ourselves and own up to the role that poor instruction, stereotypical attitudes, and unrealistic policies play in damaging poor children of color. And, I appreciate the efforts of Losen and the Civil Rights Project. I wish he had been more explicit on the radio, however, in warning that the problems with discipline are the result of both the generations of racial oppression and decades of deindustrialization and that solutions will be hard-earned and expensive.