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CLIMATE CHANGE: New Alliance Reports Say Positive School Climates Are Best Created Through Improving School Discipline Plus Access to Rigorous Course Work and Effective Teaching

In an effort to focus on effective and comprehensive secondary school reform and the creation of a positive school climate,1 the Alliance for Excellent Education is releasing a series of papers that examine how improving school discipline, access to rigorous course work, and access to effective teaching work together to positively affect schools and districts, as well as the broader education system. At the heart of the work is the belief that school discipline, curriculum, and teaching are interconnected and any effort to address one issue will be limited unless the other two are addressed as well.

“Many current school reform efforts focus on individual issues, such as school safety or the need for high-quality standards,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “The nation needs a comprehensive approach that addresses these issues in the broader context of improving school climate and student engagement, particularly in high schools.”

Released in August, the first report in the series, Climate Change: Creating an Integrated Framework for Improving School Climate, summarizes key findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). It notes that schools that struggle most with providing a positive school climate more often disproportionately serve students of color and low-income students. Additionally, students of color and students from low-income families are less likely to have access to rigorous course work and experienced teachers, and are more likely to be suspended than their white and wealthier peers.

“In the schools that reflect the worst of what [the CRDC] data shows, not only are students not being given what they need to succeed when they walk through the school door, but they are also often met with academic and discipline practices that in effect make them turn around and walk back out,” the report cautions.

The second report, Climate Change: Implementing School Discipline Practices That Create a Positive School Climate, released on September 19, notes that middle and high school students subjected to harsh school discipline policies and practices such as suspensions and expulsions are more likely to disengage from the classroom and course work, increasing their chances of dropping out. In an effort to prevent discipline issues, the report recommends that schools and districts consider using early-warning indicator systems to identify and respond to potential incidents. Poor behavior and truancy are early-warning indicators that students are becoming increasingly disengaged from school.

“Students cannot be engaged when they aren’t allowed in the classroom, as is the case in too many schools employing exclusionary discipline practices,” said Wise. “Schools and districts have the opportunity to change discipline practices and break the school-to-prison pipeline by keeping students in school and engaging them in learning.”

Negatively affecting school climate are student discipline policies that (1) keep many students out of school and away from the classroom, causing them to lose critical learning time, and (2) fail to address underlying issues within the school, the report notes. The report recommends replacing these ineffective policies with ones that help build positive school climate and engage students, including “restorative justice,” which focuses on repairing the harm a student’s actions have caused and preventing future incidents.

The report highlights inequities in exclusionary discipline practices, stating that students most affected by punitive discipline practices are students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners (ELLs), all of whom are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared to their white and non-disabled peers. It also notes a positive correlation between the number of suspensions a student endures and that student’s academic disengagement: a student suspended once in ninth grade is twice as likely to drop out of high school.

“Improving school climate by addressing and eliminating discipline practices that target certain student groups, prevent students from attending school, and criminalize student misbehavior will not only narrow achievement and graduation rate gaps, it will ensure students leave high school in a graduation cap instead of prison stripes,” Wise said.

1 The Alliance defines “positive school climate” as an environment committed to meeting and developing the academic, social, and emotional needs of every student.

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