(In a recent guest column in the Gainesville Sun, titled “Curbing the need to suspend,” retired teacher Greg Marshall applauded local efforts to curb the use of suspension as punishment in public schools. Instead of suspensions, Marshall asserted that by understanding students’ impoverished backgrounds, educators can help students meet the school’s “hidden” middle class expectations. Below, in an open letter responding to Marshall’s column, Brianna Kennedy-Lewis, an assistant professor in UF’s School of Teaching and Learning and a school discipline researcher, counters that educators must change how we think about student behavior and learning so “our focus is on students’ strengths and schools’ failures, rather than on schools’ strengths and students’ failures.”)
Here is her letter:
Greg Marshall’s recent article in the Gainesville Sun applauded the Alachua County School Board’s plan to host a workshop to address the overuse of out-of-school suspensions. As a former middle school teacher and current school discipline researcher, I echo his applause. However, I disagree with Mr. Marshall’s belief that using author Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” will solve the problem. Payne’s framework asserts that all students living in poverty have negative backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences that cause them to misbehave and fail in school. Payne believes that by understanding students’ impoverished backgrounds, educators can help students meet the school’s middle class expectations. Although Payne’s work has no scientific basis, it is appealing because it gives educators a non-threatening way to diagnose difficulties without challenging our assumptions.
Scientific research and the experiences of many educators tell a story much different than Payne’s. There is a national discipline gap between White students and students of color. Research has shown that whether or not they are poor, students of color are punished three-and-a-half times more frequently than Whites for similar offenses and the punishments are harsher. We know that out-of-school suspensions do not result only from the misbehavior of students living in poverty. Instead, educators’ beliefs, judgments, and responses to students play a critical role in the school discipline landscape.
As educators, our views of student behavior, instructional decisions, classroom management practices, and even the curriculum we teach, reflect our cultural backgrounds, which often differ from those of our students. As students become increasingly diverse across the nation, educators face the challenge of providing responsive school environments. Twenty-first century educators must understand and build upon the values and interactional styles of their students rather than following Payne’s recommendation to hold students accountable for middle class expectations. As educators, we must change how we think about student behavior and learning so that our focus is on students’ strengths and schools’ failures rather than on schools’ strengths and students’ failures. We educators have the power and responsibility to impart radical respect for students and families, invest tirelessly in building relationships with all students, and work creatively and collaboratively to provide relevant instruction for all. Focusing on these areas of educational practice will help us avoid many of the interactions that currently lead to out-of-school suspensions.
When disciplinary consequences are necessary, educators should replace out-of-school suspensions with developmentally appropriate, research-based, and effective alternatives. The National School Boards Association has recently released a policy guide (available online) outlining practical steps that school districts around the country are taking to reduce out-of-school suspensions.
(Editor’s Note: The Alachua County School Board hosted a public workshop July 11 on this issue. ACSB Chairwoman Eileen Roy said the next step is to create a committee to help school administrators get the right resources for providing alternatives to suspension.)