Rob Rhodes is director of projects with the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. This is his first piece for the AJC Get Schooled blog:
By Rob Rhodes
Along with the fiscal cliff, the United States faces an “education cliff” — the growing problem of unacceptably low graduation rates made worse, at least in part, by the reliance on school disciplinary practices that contribute to the “school to prison pipeline.”
Georgia’s significantly lagging high school graduation rate is the result of many factors. A key cause may be an overuse of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, and the regular referral of incidents of schoolyard misbehavior to juvenile court.
The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice has conducted a comprehensive study of student discipline policies, which found sharp differences among the school districts in the use of exclusionary discipline.
In 2011, eight school districts reported overall out-of-school suspension rates of less than 1 percent including one district with a student population in excess of 30,000. On the other hand, 10 districts reported rates in excess of 15 percent, about double the state average.
Of note, low out-of-school suspension school districts consistently outperformed the average graduation rate and graduated students at much higher rates than districts that used out-of-school suspensions more often.
For 2011, using the new graduation rate formula, Georgia’s four-year graduation rate was 67.5 percent. School districts with relatively rare use of out-of-school suspensions reported graduation rates on the average of 77.2 percent, as compared to a 64.4 percent average rate in districts that use them often.
While low graduation rates certainly are the result of a number of factors, a clear negative correlation exists between extensive use of exclusionary discipline and educational attainment in Georgia’s public schools.
Effective student discipline is vitally important to ensuring that all students are provided with a safe environment that is conducive to learning. However, each child in our public school system, even ones who are sometimes unruly, should also have a reasonable opportunity to obtain a quality high school education.
We recognize the very difficult balancing act that public school educators must perform every day to support these two vital interests. It would, therefore, be unfair to the thousands of Georgia K-12 educators who are committed to the success of their students to criticize the overuse of exclusionary discipline in the absence of effective alternatives.
The good news is that there are sound, evidence-based practices that can maintain collective safety and order while nurturing individual students. Such practices may include the implementation of school-wide climate enhancement efforts using the framework of positive behavioral intervention and support. Another approach may be increasing the efficacy of in-school suspensions. While there is no “one size fits all” answer, there is growing evidence that, with focused leadership and adequate resources, effective alternatives to exclusionary discipline can be implemented.
There are many reasons for low graduation rates, and we do not believe that addressing school discipline issues is a “silver bullet” solution. We do believe, however, that the changes discussed above can be implemented at a relatively low cost and will be a meaningful part of a comprehensive strategy to allow Georgia’s children to flow through a “school to opportunity” pipeline.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog