This week in Denver, there is a fantastic academic conference happening with super smart people trying to figure out the most pressing issues in education. The papers at this conference are typically peer-reviewed research that can be a bit complicated for a general audience. In fact, there is an entire session devoted to school discipline, where in-depth papers titled “Finding a Systemic Remedy to Excessive Discipline in Schools: Efforts in DC and New Orleans to Bring Coherence and Consistency Across Autonomous Schools,” and “The Timing of SNAP Benefit Receipt and Disciplinary Incidents,” ground the discussion.
But the cool kids probably aren’t there. Instead, they’re likely reading just the headlines on their favorite websites—headlines like those in Mother Jones, “The Disturbing Reason Why Charter Schools May Have Higher Test Scores,” or US News, “Charter Schools Propping Up the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Along this vein, a slew of breathless articles have been written in the last few days about a just-released report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA that recycles discipline data from nearly five years ago. These data have already been analyzed—drawing methodological critiques in some cases— but, most importantly, used to start the discussions that led to the research being presented in Denver.
I hold journalists accountable for framing these old data as being analyzed “for the first time ever,” because that is just blatantly untrue. But I give them credit for acknowledging that charter and district-run public schools’ discipline practices five years ago resulted in small differences (about 1 percent, each, for all students and for students with disabilities) and that the high-suspending charter schools were far outnumbered by the low-suspending charter schools. Curiously, the Civil Rights Project did not do a similar analysis for non-charter schools or call out any non-charter schools by name. But, that doesn’t usually generate as much excitement.
The fact is, keeping students in school and developing sound and fair disciplinary approaches that work for all students is critical to the success of all schools. And addressing this issue has become a primary focus for many within the charter school community and beyond it. The expulsion rate in DC charter schools has been cut by two-thirds since these data were collected, and the rate of out-of-school suspensions (described as “education jargon” that means “being sent home on detention” by Mother Jones) has declined by 20 percent.
Of course the authors call out KIPP—a favorite target of the education establishment because it has been able to replicate to nearly 200 schools without reducing quality. To them, KIPP’s high performance must involve some trickery. Otherwise there is no other explanation for how KIPP has been able to achieve success with the most disadvantaged students. But just ten days ago, a much more thoughtful piece that goes “beyond the viral video” discussed KIPP’s recent reconsideration of some of their discipline policies. In addition, a recent academic report by Mathematica found that KIPP’s approach “does not have a negative effect on students’ levels of ‘well-adjustedness’,” and, further, that 44 percent of KIPP graduates go on to earn a 4-year degree, compared to just 8 percent of low-income adults—a critical outcome for these students.
Charter schools are known to serve disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students and will continue to seek ways to serve them well. Fortunately, these schools have the ability to both innovate and recalibrate when necessary. Many of these charter schools exist in communities where half or more of the students have been scoring below the Basic level of academic achievement for decades. Not all charter schools are outstanding, but some have achieved dramatic success. And yet, critics continue to churn out the attention-grabbing headlines, even if it means using old data or faulty logic.