Focus on School Climate

The Maryland State Board of Education recently approved new school discipline regulations designed to end disparities in how students of different races are punished for violating school rules. The new policies are aimed at replacing inequitable, harmful policies that kick students out of school—like suspension and expulsion—with positive, responsive, and inclusive ones that keep them in the classroom.

Maryland’s new discipline policies come on the heels of a new set of school discipline guidelines released by the Obama administration, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice. At the heart of the federal government’s guidance and Maryland’s changes is a move away from zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that push students out of school and into the criminal justice system.

These new policies are particularly important because current policies fall especially hard on students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners, all of whom are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared to their white and non-disabled peers.

Toward a Positive Climate

At the Alliance for Excellent Education, the policy and advocacy team has spent countless hours scouring data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to determine what makes a positive school climate and how best to serve students. We have pinpointed three factors that dictate a school’s climate: school discipline policies, quality of curriculum, and teachers.

Discipline Policies: Educators know that students cannot be engaged when they are not allowed in the classroom. Further, the more often they are removed, the more challenging it can be to reengage and keep them engaged once they return. As a result, middle school and high school students who are subjected to harsh school discipline policies and practices, such as suspension and expulsion, are more likely to drop out of school; a student suspended once in ninth grade is twice as likely to drop out of high school.

If disciplinary practices that push students out of school are not addressed and eliminated, any effort to address the nation’s dropout crisis and close the high school graduation rate gap between white students and students of color and students with disabilities will be limited, at best.

Quality of Curriculum: Equally important, implementing high-quality, high-standards coursework that is aligned with college- and career-ready standards is positively correlated with improving student engagement and school climate. When students are challenged and motivated to succeed, achievement gaps narrow and learning and outcomes improve.

Teachers: Finally, and perhaps most important, quality teachers are what make schools work. Educators play the most important role in any education setting. Schools where the focus is on strengthening student-teacher relationships, and where comprehensive professional development is personalized to teacher needs, see improvements in school climate.

Improving school climate by addressing and eliminating discipline practices that target certain student groups, prevent students from attending school, and criminalize student misbehavior will not only narrow achievement and graduation rate gaps, it will ensure students leave high school in a graduation cap rather than prison stripes.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, April 2014