Student misbehavior and the response (or lack of response) to it is a topic of increasing discussion around Wisconsin. But too often, discipline horror stories are told through the prism of anecdotes and one-off reports that don’t help build a comprehensive picture of the extent of the problem.
A new study from the Fordham Institute aims to change that. In an effort to get teacher’s perspectives on the state of discipline, Fordham surveyed over 1,200 white and African American teachers in a nationally representative sample. While some localized information exists on teacher’s perceptions of school discipline, this study represents one of the more comprehensive looks to date.
Wisconsin has seen many school districts implement what are known as “restorative practices” in discipline. Such systems, like the widespread Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), eschew old-fashioned practices like suspension in favor of keeping the student in school, ostensibly working to improve their behavior by other means.
Do such systems work? We dissect three components of the Fordham poll for teacher perspective.
Have Suspension Reductions Improved Behavior?
Like the rest of the country, suspension rates have fallen over the past few years in Wisconsin. During the 2007-08 school year, approximately 6.6 percent of students experienced a suspension throughout the school year. By 2015-16, this number had dropped to 3.9 percent – a 41 percent decline. This drop has been experienced throughout the country as districts focus more on restorative practices, and attempt to reduce suspensions from student groups that tend to be suspended more, such as minorities.
If this drop in suspensions was the result of improved behavior, perhaps this finding could be taken as a positive. But the vast majority of teachers do not believe that is the case. According to the Fordham study, only 23 percent of teachers in districts that reported declines in suspension attributed those declines to improved student behavior.
What Happens to Other Students in the Classroom?
Common sense says that if students who are chronically having behavioral issues are remaining in the classroom, that this could be problematic for other students learning. And teachers across the country agree: 77 percent of teachers agreed with the sentiment that “most students suffered because of a few persistent troublemakers” while 64 percent reported that in the past year there were misbehaving students in their classroom who should not have been there.
This is backed up by research conducted by WILL in Wisconsin, which compared proficiency on the state’s Forward Exam between districts that had and had not implemented PBIS. Including a host of sociodemographic controls, we found that districts that had implemented alternative discipline had lower rates of proficiency in math and reading.
Student and Teacher Safety
Arguably the most basic expectation of all is that the classroom be a safe environment for students to learn. But Fordham’s study suggests that this is not always the case. Of the teachers surveyed, 13 percent reported that they had been the victim of a physical assault during the previous year in high poverty schools. Approximately one-third of teachers reported that fights were a weekly occurrence and that they dealt with verbal disrespect on a daily basis.
This is also consistent with anecdotal reports in Milwaukee, where a number of teachers have been the victim of assaults. In some instances, the student perpetrators allegedly went without punishment due to concerns about keeping suspension numbers low.
It is clear that the top down approach by the federal government to dictate student discipline policies is not working. While some improvement has been made with the repeal of the requirement for a PBIS system by the Trump administration, there is still work to be done.
A rule put in place by the Obama Department of Education threatens to exacerbate the sort of problems identified in the Fordham study. This rule requires states to set discipline thresholds for disabled students in each racial group and if the state reports above it, the district will have federal IDEA aid potentially reduced.
A recent policy brief by WILL showed that many districts are likely to run up against these thresholds, even if they are set at what seems like a high number. WILL’s studies have shown that while mandating certain rates of suspension may reduce suspension, but it is unlikely to improve behavior, worsening the situation for teachers.
Instead, top down approaches from the federal government must end and more flexibility for states on important issues like school discipline must be encouraged.
Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.