In the Classroom

Discipline reporting changes could explain why black children are suspended more

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New state guidelines for collecting data about school discipline could help shed more light on why schools are suspending and expelling students — especially the disproportionately high rate for black students.

The state has added new categories of offenses for schools to choose from beginning in 2016 when reporting their discipline data in an effort to make the information more specific. Until now, the most-used category for why a student was suspended or expelled was listed as “other,” a designation that doesn’t tell school or state officials anything about why the incident happened. The next most-used reasons were “defiance” and “fighting.”

Two of the new categories that officials hope will be most helpful are “sexual misconduct” and “technology misuse,” which could include distracting cellphone use in class or more serious offenses, like having pornography on a phone or tablet.

Michelle Tubbs, assistant director of data collection for the education department, said at the meeting of the state’s School Discipline and Climate subcommittee on Thursday that the changes would lead to better, less ambiguous reporting from schools.

“After meeting with Russ Skiba and Superintendent (Glenda) Ritz … we actually have completely re-done the expulsion and suspension collection,” Tubbs said. “So hopefully we will start seeing ‘other’ coming down in numbers because we are giving schools more categories to pick from.”

Skiba, director of Indiana University’s The Equity Project, which studies disparities in discipline, said 31 percent of suspensions and expulsions for black students are categorized as “other,” with most of the rest being for fairly insignificant offenses, such as defiance, attendance or profanity. Only about 5 percent are from battery, drug-related or violent incidents.

So more frequently, students are suspended and expelled for minor offenses, Skiba said. Major offenses are pretty rare.

In all instances of suspension and expulsion, black students are disproportionately represented, Skiba said. That means that though black students make up just 12 percent of Indiana students, they make up almost 40 percent of suspensions and expulsions. According to data from The Equity Project, black students are suspended two to three times more often than other students across the country.

Federal data from the 2011-12 school year reported similar findings, with black children as the targets of discipline more often than white children, both nationally and in Indianapolis. Too many instances of discipline, especially ones that result in students missing class time, can lead to lower graduation rates and more students getting arrested for crimes, federal officials said in a statement last year.

Although he’s glad to see an effort to be more specific in discipline reporting to get at what might be causing the disparity, Skiba said he thinks more schools should be surveyed about how they define “other.” He’s concerned that just adding two more categories might not make enough of a difference in the numbers.

“We don’t want to survey every school in the state, but maybe there’s some way of getting a representative sample of schools,” he said. “My guess is that there are a lot more reasons out there for ‘other’ than just this.”

The state outlines 25 total categories a school can use to report a discipline-related offense, but districts themselves can add more for internal record-keeping, Tubbs said. When she worked in Lawrence Township, she said the district had more than 100 categories.

“You have battery — well, is it battery against another student, or is it battery against an adult?” she said. “At Lawrence, they’d split it, but to the state, battery is battery.”

Overall, Skiba and Tubbs said it was important for schools to understand how to use data to make improvements. Sometimes administrators just need help with the basics, like formatting or even knowing where to find data.

Those changes might require time and work, Skiba said, but they’re needed to ensure inequalities among students don’t get overlooked.

“It becomes very difficult to really see their disproportionality, much less do anything about it,” Skiba said. “That’s going to be a process. It’s going to take folks a long time to get there.”

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.