What are we debating about?

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By Raymond Weeden

Over the past few years, researchers and advocates have presented a body of data which connects the impact of exclusionary discipline practices and student success. I recently sat in a public roundtable where advocates and researchers presented data to show the association between suspending a student and that child’s projected success rate (graduation from high school).

Educators at the roundtable acknowledged students who are suspended have a more difficult path toward high school graduation. There is no debate about the belief schools need to continue to work with families to keep students in class as much as possible. I have rarely sat at a table where all sides had their sights set on the same end goal. Everyone believes that high-quality schools are the best place for students to learn.

As a black father, teacher, and school leader, I have dedicated my life to helping school communities become great. I appreciate the research, and I find the current debate related to the use of exclusionary practices well-timed, but I worry the discussion over suspension and expulsions is a red herring which avoids the difficult conversations families, policymakers, schools, and advocates need to have about the systematic reform needed for our children.

The odd part about the discussion is that schools are pegged as the villain. It doesn’t matter if it is the newspaper, social media or testimony from the roundtable. Schools are highlighted as neglectful, aloof, and depending on the experience of the testimony, vindictive.

As a teacher or school leader, I cannot remember a time when I woke up with the mindset of permanently harming a child. I never drummed my thumbs in my office with a menacing smirk on my face knowing the decision to suspend a child would finally “get him out of my school.” In fact it was the opposite, I worried about the wellbeing of that child knowing the work to rebuild the community of my school would be twice as hard.

A disturbing trend in the debate is the lack of true stakeholders’ input. Our policy rooms are heavily-weighted with lawyers, advocates, and city government workers. Rarely do we listen first to the voices of our heroes on the front line: teachers, deans, and counselors. 

Even more alarming is the trend of excluding the voice of current public-school parents. School achievement, discipline, and culture have many intersections. Failure to listen to the needs of parents whose children have been suspended, as well as from those whose kids have not been suspended is unacceptable. Families on both sides of the issue have opinions that must be heard.

The debate does highlight one flaw we have when talking about schools. The research, articles, TV shows, and public forums place an unfair amount of responsibility on schools. As such, we typically look at schools through the lens of what schools are not doing well, continuing not to acknowledge the decades of neglect which has been fostered in our neighborhoods.

Well thought-out policies, with the goal of reducing the prison pipeline, should be applauded, but policies which do not radically shift the funding or resource structures of our city to proportionally match resources to schools with the most significant needs, are not the solutions our children need.

We can no longer isolate schools as the villains, divorcing what happens in the classroom from the complexities of housing, economic development, health, and other policies which are governing our city agencies. Failure to draft policy which does not recognize the need for each entity to be more responsive, comprehensive, and coordinated to provide a set of services directly to families and schools in need is a recipe for fostering the status quo.

In DC, families, teacher, and leaders were working together to help students have more access to learning every day long before the recent legislation was introduced.  The hearing highlighted an unfortunate reality that even our most informed legislators do not know what families, teachers, and school leader do every day.

Instead of naming schools “as not doing enough” take time to sort out what each is doing well. Framing the conversation as schools versus families, more specifically schools versus black families is a cowardly move. This narrative is demotivating to our teachers and leaders whom we need to be inspired and focused on doing their best work with students every day.