Editorial: Rolling back school suspensions shows great promise

SHARE Editorial: Rolling back school suspensions shows great promise

Students enter Edwards Elementary School in Chicago on the first day of school this year. Suspensions and expulsions have dropped dramatically in the city’s public schools in the last four years. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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A buzz phrase in the world of social services is “evidenced-based solutions.”

When trying to fix a problem, that is to say, don’t just follow your gut. Do what the best research shows really works.

And you know what? That turns out to be good advice, as the Chicago Public Schools can testify.

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Four years ago, CPS adopted a new disciplinary code, one that moved away from out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. Instead, kids who caused trouble would serve fewer and shorter suspensions, and more often serve those suspensions right in school. While our gut might tell us that the best way to maintain order in a school is zero-tolerance punishment — suspend, expel and strike fear in students — the best research showed there was a better way. Specifically, a persuasive 2011 report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that schools with high suspension rates were less safe than schools with lower rates. And what really made a school safe, the research revealed, was positive relationships between students, teachers and staff.

CPS, to its credit, embraced that approach. It shifted away from harsh punishment and toward more counseling and “social and emotional” learning. What has been the result?

At the same time Chicago’s schools are chalking up improvements in ACT scores and elementary math and reading levels, suspensions and expulsions are the lowest since CPS began keeping track. Out-of-school suspensions have declined 67 percent, on a per-student basis, since the 2012-13 school year. In-school suspensions have declined 7 percent. Expulsions have dropped 74 pecent. In all of these cases, most of the decline came immediately after the new discipline policy was put in place and flattened out in the last year.

Troubling, though, charter schools, which do not have to adhere to the CPS discipline code, are kicking out students five times as often as traditional public schools, reports Lauren FitzPatrick of the Sun-Times. Remember that the next time a charter school brags about it’s fantastic graduation and college-acceptance rates; it likely gave the boot to less promising students long before then.

For all we know, the change in disciplinary policy and the scholastic gains at traditional public schools are unrelated, but we would be surprised if that were so. Young people are not weeds, to be plucked and tossed when they offend. Schools — even charter schools — do better when they change bad student behavior rather than simply punish it.

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