Don't Try to Predict Who Supports Kicking Young Minority Kids Out of School

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I tell myself, if it's anything to do with how adults feel about kids and education, don’t try to predict it and do try not to be surprised.

Dallas School Board member Miguel Solis is arguing for a new policy to reduce the number of very little kids who get kicked out of school. He wants Dallas to join a growing number of districts around the state and country struggling to find new creative ways to deal with disciplinary problems other than, “Go home. We hate you.”

It makes me very angry that somebody even had to do this research, but in 2014 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education did publish a study, and guess what! Telling a kindergartner, “Go home. We hate you” is very bad for the child:

“Young students who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not,” a summary of the study stated.

Let’s put this shoe on some other feet. My foot and your foot. If you and I had a kid who was disruptive in school at a very early age, then I suspect we would want the school to try a whole bunch of alternatives before the kicking the kid all the way out of school or, frankly, even just out of class.

But a Texas Appleseed study found that “classroom removal” is almost a first resort rather than the last. Of 1 million removals they looked at, 97 percent were discretionary – that is, not required by law – and based on so-called “student codes of conduct,” which can be anything a teacher or school district wants to say they are.

Appleseed looked at numbers in Texas for the 2013-2014 school year. They counted 49,044 kicked-out-of-school suspensions for third- to fifth-graders. They found 36,753 expulsions for kids in kindergarten through second grade.

But for some reason, this is the number that really got me: 2,513 kids in pre-K were sent home. Pre-K kids. Those really are babies.

Get out, baby. This school doesn’t want you, baby. You don’t belong, baby. You suck, baby. You’re a bad baby.

And maybe the kid is a bad baby. By that I mean a troublesome baby, a difficult baby, a problematic baby. Hey, the law sets forth that if the baby is so bad he presents an actual physical endangerment to the other babies, then, yes, that baby must be expelled.

But as we have already established, hardly any of these expulsions meet that mark. These are expulsions to make the teacher’s day go better, and that brings me back to my original vow not to predict or be surprised by positions people take on kids and education, a vow I predict I will break. About now.

The main push-back against Solis’ proposals so far is coming from school board member Joyce Foreman, and I think I would have predicted that. Foreman was the de facto leader of the African-American resistance to school reform in Dallas under former superintendent Mike Miles.

She is a staunch champion of the teachers unions. If the final result of the still ongoing school board elections is an anti-reform majority on the board, then Foreman, I predict again, will lead the effort to take down the most important reform achieved under Miles – merit pay for teachers.

I don’t know how much of this you followed before Miles resigned a year ago  but the teachers – you remember your teachers, right? – are very anti-merit. They want to keep their jobs and get pay raises based strictly on how long they’ve been on the job.

Had this applied to you in school, then you would have gotten higher grades in the third grade, for example, based on how long you had been in the third grade. But it doesn’t apply to students. Just teachers. That’s what they want to go back to anyway, and Foreman will lead that effort, because she is very loyal to and speaks for the teachers.

At a school board briefing last week, Solis proposed that the district impose a ban on out-of-school suspensions for kids pre-K through second grade except when they're required by law. His ideas and proposals on this topic are backed by substantial research showing that school districts can effectively resolve early education disciplinary problems by means other than expulsions.
But Foreman, opposing the ban, said, “I don’t want to take tools away from teachers for classroom management.”

The systems Solis wants the district to consider are not cheap and not simple. They are based on a lot of collaboration and on paying more attention, not less, to the troublesome baby.

But his proposed alternative systems also are premised on research showing that the social costs of kicking kids out of school early are enormous, maybe not even quantifiable. Among those pre-K through fifth-grade kids who get kicked out, black children are over-represented by almost three times their population count and males by almost twice their number.

People this year are tossing around numbers about black males and incarceration rates, including Bernie Sanders’ often repeated claim that, “A black male baby born today, if we do not change the system, stands a 1 in 3 chance ending up in jail.” The Washington Post did a good job showing that the number Sanders cites is what the Post called a three-year-old “stale statistic” and that the actual numbers now are probably substantially lower. 

But Texas Appleseed and other advocacy and research groups dealing with the “school to prison pipeline” phenomenon have demonstrated repeatedly that it really is a pipeline. The same over-representation we see of minority kids in school disciplinary numbers shows up again and is maybe worse in the number and ethnicity of young people who wind up in the pen.

Can we be surprised by that? The black male kid who gets sent home from school has already got about a million signals beamed into his head telling him he doesn’t belong and the world doesn’t want him, like the difference between his life and the one he sees on TV.

Is that the school’s fault? No. Is it possible that the negative forces working on that kid outside the school are what turn him into a behavioral problem? Sure. And does that make him a real problem for the teacher? You bet.

But the numbers show that if you kick him out of school in pre-K, he’s already toast in pre-K. He’s in the pipeline. The jury has read his verdict to him.

All of this goes to the heart of what Miles was fighting to achieve in our city, a battle whose outcome is now in great peril. It’s not that the teachers don’t have real problems and hardships to deal with. I never once heard Miles say anything like that.

The issue is that thousands of children, especially poor minority children, are channeled into prison from a very early age, and that process of channeling will continue unabated until we figure out a better way to deal with them.

Are a lot of them trouble for the teacher the day they show up? Certainly. But what Solis is proposing is a way to coax the trouble out of them. The other solution, kicking little kids out of school who are already brutally challenged by the world outside of school is like taking out a rubber stamp and stamping “PRISON” on their little foreheads.

In terms of whom you’d expect to support the kind of reform Solis is proposing, you might think … no, wait a minute, that really is what I promised not to do, not go around expecting and surprising about things.

Solis has got the numbers and the research for his idea. I’m going to wait for the other side to present its research, which I assume will be titled, “Why It’s Good For Little Kids to Tell Them You Hate Them.” I think they have a guy in the ed school down at UT who can probably wordsmith that up for them.

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