Two approaches to dealing with school troublemakers
Let me first take care of two matters in the aftermath of the commentary I wrote a week ago.
Right around 11%. That was the official annual suspension rate in Milwaukee Public Schools in each of the four most recent school years. I said last week that I asked for current data on MPS suspensions on Dec. 12 and hadn’t gotten a response. It came in a letter dated Jan. 8.
The figures, starting in 2013-’14 were 11.3%, 10.4%, 11.8% and 11.4%. Through December of this school year, MPS suspensions are running slightly ahead of the same period a year ago.
So about one in nine MPS students is suspended at last once a year. That is less than half of the suspension rate of a decade ago when a team of school officials from around the country said that MPS had the highest suspension rate they knew of in the country. Their report called for developing alternatives.
The prevailing word from on high in MPS since then has been to reduce suspensions.
Have more constructive alternatives arisen?
Maybe, somewhat, in some schools. But overall?
I doubt it. If you know a teacher who will candidly tell you the behavior climate in that teacher’s school is better now than a few years ago, let me know. I don’t know any.
This is hardly a matter limited to MPS and Milwaukee. My second point, following on last week’s column on the behavior in school, is to say that I heard from dozens of teachers and former teachers from throughout Wisconsin. The responses were insightful, heartfelt, often sad — and often lengthy. Teachers want to be heard. I’m still going over the responses and will write about them soon. Stay tuned.
For the moment, I suggest considering two snapshots of ways to respond to the need for better and safer schools. It’s easy to label one a soft approach and one a hard approach, but I suggest there may be more to the reality of both than that. Everyone wants teachers and students to be safe in school; everyone wants education to be a process not only of teaching academic skills but of moving children toward being good citizens with good traits. There are different routes to these goals.
The first snapshot is from Madison on Thursday. The state Assembly judiciary committee held a lengthy public hearing on a proposal the author, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), calls the Teacher Protection Act.
In short, it would increase the interaction between teachers and police departments and give teachers a stronger hand in seeing that kids who cause trouble could be removed from their classrooms.
Thiesfeldt told me that there are disciplinary practices in some schools now that are really more “social justice experiments.” They are not working, he said.
“My experience in teaching is that when you kind of ignore or turn your back on disciplining students, it doesn’t get better, in fact, it probably is going to get worse,” he said. “Just talking to students isn’t sufficient. There has to be more action, even up to expulsions.”
Critics said Thiesfeldt’s proposal emphasized punishment over improvement and particularly would harm students with special education needs, minority students and students with mental and emotional issues.
Joanne Juhnke, policy director of Wisconsin Family Ties, a nonprofit organization, said at a news conference before the hearing, “If Wisconsin could arrest and suspend its way to school safety, we’d have been there a long time ago.”
The committee took no action on the proposal.
The second snapshot is from a panel discussion that was part of a program at Marquette Law School on Nov. 29 that focused on the increasing interest nationwide in “social-emotional learning” as part of a school’s program. (I was the main organizer of the event, which included a prominent skeptic of such efforts.) The four panelists are each involved in implementing such efforts. They were from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Milwaukee Public Schools, the Milwaukee College Prep charter schools and the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
All four agreed that students are coming to school in large numbers without good skills in such things as selfcontrol, responding to frustration and dealing with disagreements with others. Integrated well into a school’s life, social-emotional learning can improve the climate and build the traits that, in the long run, employers value.
Beth Herman of the DPI said, “We are having a mental health crisis with our kids, Social-emotional learning skills are a universal strategy for good mental health for all kids.”
Karen Stoiber, a professor of educational psychology at UWM, said that a productive response to the crisis of low levels of success in reading and math in some schools is to build up the social skills that increase a child’s capacity to succeed academically.
Marquette education professor Cynthia Ellwood, who moderated the discussion, asked why there seems to be an increase in these issues among students now.
The consensus among the panelists: So many kids don’t feel much connection to other people. That includes the high number in surveys who say they don’t have an adult they can turn to with serious personal matters. It also reflects the impact of the heavy use of social media devices, at the expense of faceto-face interactions.
Is there room and need for both building social skills and taking a firm hand on discipline? There may well be. From advocates of both — and from within schools themselves — I sense a growing call for improving the atmosphere in schools. More on that next week.