In a recent address to parent leaders, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on parents to take education more seriously and be active in partnering with schools as we seek to raise expectations for students. The week prior, the Department of Education released new guidelines around improving climate and discipline policies in schools showing how suspensions, arrests, and expulsions can lead to negative outcomes for students and contribute to the phenomenon known as the school- to–prison pipeline. Given this, the high prevalence of out-of-school suspensions in our schools – even for non-violent behaviors – is a serious concern.
As a teacher leader in New York City, I believe school discipline policy is the perfect example of an issue that allows parents and teachers to work together and prompt systemic change that can improve our schools.
The federal guidance package presents a solid argument for a long-known fact in educational communities around the country: school discipline policies and practices are in drastic need of reform – particularly in the way we work with minority students and students who receive special education services, like the students at my school. The task of improving school discipline policies and school climates provides new opportunities for parents and teachers to work together.
The guidance package outlines three guiding principles of reform and related action steps that states and districts can consider as they undertake local reform efforts. Several of those action steps speak directly to the critical role of parents as partners in the discipline process, including the needs for:
- Regular communication between parents and educators.
- Parent involvement in school climate based teams.
- Parent and teacher involvement in developing school discipline procedures, codes of conduct, and positive support roles
Considering the complexity of navigating the home-school-community, there are a few noticings and thoughts I have gleaned from my experiences as a special educator in Missouri and New York City. Hopefully these recommendations may be helpful in navigating discipline policies in schools.
Parents and teachers must find new ways to have clear and consistent communication about behavior outside of the usual means (e.g. back to school night, report card conferences, etc.). As our technology improves, we need a host of strategies that keep parents involved in their students’ progress. With more frequent, proactive communication, behaviors can be identified and addressed to minimize significant risks. Communication must be bi-directional. Just as schools have a responsibility to proactively communicate with parents/caregivers it is essential that parents/caregivers also take an active role in articulating how behaviors or indicators of risk, manifest themselves in the home setting. Bridging the home-school divide is a crucial step in creating plans that reduce risks and better coordinate services across the student’s primary spheres of influence.
Parental involvement in school climate based teams
Parents, families and communities must be involved in the creation and assessment of school-based discipline policies. Parent involvement has always been a cornerstone of successful schools. However, it is essential that the role of families is not purely a support role, but one of empowerment and voice in decisions. One of the key factors affecting family investment in school systems is the level of influence families have in the direction of the school. Long term plans for support for struggling and at-risk students must be co-created by teams that have vested interest in designing mentorship opportunities that bridge the home-community-school relationship.
Parent and teacher involvement in developing systemic change
The federal school climate and discipline guidance package presents a unique opportunity to approach discipline policies as an instructional system, rather than as isolated, reactive interventions. The social emotional-welfare of a school community must involve a comprehensive integration of proactive school support structures. These structures may include mentoring programs with community members, advisory systems to address well-being, and professional development for staff and families to ensure appropriate implementation. Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline serves as backbone of a systemic approach to reforming the school environment to cultivate safe and meaningful school community for all. Understanding students’ rights and helping students learn to appropriately advocate for themselves is a crucial aspect of the work of both parents and teachers.
Parents and teachers in partnership
Parents and teachers represent the first line in reforming school discipline policies. Systemic change is more than just creating new programs or tinkering with existing discipline polices. It is time for a dramatic reassessment of the effects that discipline policies – including zero tolerance policies – have on bolstering educational success for our most at-risk and exceptional populations. As Secretary Duncan expressed in his speech to parent leaders, our expectations of students and of our schools have to change if we are going to be internationally competitive, and our expectations of how parents and teachers work together have to change with it.
Jonathan McIntosh is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the United States Department of Education and serves as Director of Debate and of Special Education at KIPP AMP Middle/Elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. Additionally, he teaches Argumentation Theory and Policy Debate at New York University.