The negative effects of returning to discipline strategies that have never worked

In an article published on March 16 (2018) in the New York Daily News – headlined The negative effects of Obama’s “positive” school discipline policies -- Will Flanders and Natalie Goodnow of the Wisconsin Institute for Law slam the Obama Administration for “coercing’ schools nationwide to overhaul their discipline policies in an effort to address racial disparities in school discipline. According to Flanders and Goodnow, Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, pushed Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports (PBIS) as a replacement for traditional discipline. They then argue that the results of these efforts “don’t look good,” that the shift has hurt academics, and that teachers are longing for the good old days of traditional discipline.

I’m not a huge proponent of PBIS – mostly because I don’t think it’s been transformative for our most at-risk students -- so I won’t be defending it here. Indeed, my sense is that the vast majority of schools that are implementing PBIS haven’t changed disciplinary policies and practices much at all. That’s why rates of procedures that are associated with “traditional discipline” are still sky-high: over 3 million out-of-school suspensions, another 3 million in-school suspensions, over 100,000 expulsions, hundreds of thousands of paddlings, and dozens of millions of detentions every school year.  It appears that the punitive discipline longed for by Flanders and Goodnow hasn’t disappeared…it’s still very much alive and well.

On the basis of their cherry-picked data (proof that it’s always possible to find data somewhere to support one’s biases), Flanders and Goodnow then urge current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to rescind the Obama-era school discipline directive. They argue that school districts should be the ones to determine what discipline policies work best for their staff and students, not a federal agency in D.C.

But the disparity in the way students of color are disciplined at school are real, and they are worthy of our attention and efforts. That teachers are seeing increasing and more severe behavioral challenges in their students and feel ill-equipped to understand and manage those challenges is also real. As the published discipline data from the US Department of Education attest, school discipline was a mess way before the Obama administration. We’ve always lost a lot of kids in the US because of the punitive, unenlightened, obsolete school discipline practices Flanders and Goodnow advocate. These are the kids who’ve always accounted for the vast majority of school discipline referrals. But the fact that these kids are accessing the discipline program frequently is proof that the discipline program isn’t working.

We spend a fortune on these kids, in special education programs and other services and, sometimes, prison. It’s not that they can’t be helped. It’s that traditional school discipline doesn’t address their difficulties. If Flanders and Goodnow want to cite research, they should cite the hundreds of studies telling us that behaviorally challenging kids are lacking skills and exhibit behavioral challenges when there are (mostly academic) expectations they are having difficulty meeting. Because traditional school discipline is focused primarily on modifying challenging behavior – through standard reward and punishment procedures – it doesn’t teach these students the skills they’re lacking, nor does it help them handle whatever academic expectations they’re having difficulty meeting.

There are a variety of non-punitive, non-adversarial, collaborative intervention options available to schools. Those interventions aren’t “soft” – in fact, truly transforming school discipline is really hard – but they do address the actual needs of our most behaviorally challenging students. It seems that Betsy DeVos should be examining those interventions (and the data supporting their effectiveness). A return to what clearly wasn’t working would be a major disservice to our most vulnerable students, their classmates, and their teachers.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
March 26, 2018