NPR and School Discipline

Guest blog by Ross T.

This American Life recently did an extended inquiry into a broken nationwide school discipline system. It's worth a listen. 

Like many who read this blog, I've had my own journey in school discipline.  Over time, as a Creative Writing and English teacher, I realized that it's possible (though challenging) to create a positive climate that is both warm and strict.  Both parts are hard.  The strict meant enforcing rules consistently.  The warm meant many, many hours of my time out of class building relationships with each kid (and often their parents, through phone calls).  Whether it's possible to maintain the "warm" for many years of teaching, especially when you have your own family, is a topic for another time. 

Now to the NPR story. There's a moment where Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt has just finished interviewing middle school teacher Rousseau Mieze about his professional journey—from “No Excuses” student in Boston to “No Excuses” teacher in Brooklyn—when she witnesses him giving a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

The occurrence is “super confusing” to her, because Mr. Mieze had previously expressed ambivalence about how his own high school had punished him for not being able to stay quiet. According to Jaffe-Walt, Mieze is motivated to exert control in this way by the same thing that motivated his teachers: Fear. Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with. 

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment. And this strict disciplinary road, paved with good intentions, could lead Mieze’s students to prison.

TAL framed Mieze’s vignette by discussing the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that demonstrates how disciplinary measures like school suspensions—disproportionately leveled against students of color—correlate with future incarceration. The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration. Moreover, this cycle of punishment could lead to students self-perceiving as “bad kids.”

It will be possible to empirically measure Jaffe-Walt's argument.  Economists like MIT's Josh Angrist are tracking No Excuses charter school grads against "lottery losers" who vied for admission but didn't get in.  We already know the charter school kids do way better on state exams.  In the coming years, we'll learn if these charters actually drive college outcomes much higher, income higher, and things like going to prison -- lower. 

Right now, I could offer my own “anecdata,” stories about gang-involved kids I’ve known at Match in Boston and KIPP in Oakland who reported that a charter teacher changed their lives. But ultimately, social scientists like Angrist can have the last word. 

As a contrast to Mieze’s school, Achievement First Bushwick in Brooklyn, NPR looks at a nearby middle and high school called Lyons Community School. Lyons employs a restorative justice discipline system wherein students that misbehave or make poor decisions are guided through various layers of staff and student-led reflection and mediation.

Jaffe-Walt is clearly impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members. It’s a glowing report. The exposé concludes with an anecdote about a group of Lyons students being victimized on the subway by an antagonistic police officer, in a confrontation where an uncompromising criminal justice system holds sway, not reconciliation and restoration.

Interestingly, TAL didn’t discuss academic results or student outcomes of either AF Bushwick or Lyons. (The AF school earned straight As on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs, and its high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.  Remember that these academic results are based in part of gains -- so AF can't earn a high score by attracting top kids.)

NPR’s decision not to include academic results in their story is in this way a curious one. Perhaps they complicated the story too much.

It might be fairly said that No Excuses charter schools strive to prepare students for the world as they will find it: a place where a college degree is still the best salve against intergenerational poverty; where the criminal justice system may prosecute you unfairly based on your race; where you must succeed in the system before you can transform it.

And it might fairly be said that a school like Lyons strives to prepare students for the world as it should be: a place where measured discussion takes place between antagonists; where rehabilitation and reconciliation are privileged over punishment.

But which ethos is the right one? Clearly it’s more complicated than that. Herein lies Mr. Mieze’s well-articulated ambivalence about his own “No Excuses” education, without which he believes he would not even have attended college.

Sure, he is afraid for his students. Who among us is not? But I suspect it’s not a hysterical fear that leads him to and say things that—deep down—he knows are misguided. Rather, it’s the justified fear that without a diploma they won’t even have a fighting chance to do their part to remake an imperfect society.

I will reach out to Mr. Mieze and see if he'd be willing to comment.  I'd be curious to hear his reaction to the story.