Charter School Boards Need to be Part of the Discipline Solution
Yesterday, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released a report entitled, "Grappling with Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches from DC and New Orleans."
This report focuses on a critical set of issues in education: setting constructive and compliant discipline policies, and using data about how they are implemented to make decisions about whether to change those policies. Creating a positive learning environment and strong culture is at the foundation of every successful school. Discipline policies and practices, such as when and if to expel or suspend students for long periods of time, are necessary in both traditional and public charter schools. We will focus in this blog on public charter schools, as those are the schools with which we work.
Public charter school leaders, including the independent boards that govern the school, are responsible for determining discipline policies that will ultimately produce a culture of learning that embraces all types of learners. In DC, more than 600 volunteers currently sit on public charter school boards, and each of these board members is charged with ensuring that their schools are quality schools. Issues related to discipline policies are a central part of that responsibility.
The CRPE report highlights DC’s School Equity Reports, a product of rare and lauded collaboration between DC PCSB, DCPS, and OSSE. These reports provide data on suspension and expulsion rates for all DC public schools, including public charter schools, and compare each school's rates to the city’s average. The reports go to every school, and are available to parents as well.
Equity Reports are publicly available and the data is presented in a format that is easy to understand. Therefore, they allow school leaders to focus on the areas that need improvement. The reports over the past three years show a decline in suspensions and expulsions in the charter sector. The percent of students suspended dropped from 14.5% in school year 2012-13 to 10.9% in 2014-15. Similarly, expulsions declined, from 0.8% of students during school year 2011-12 to 0.3% in 2014-15. We publish these trends annually on DC PCSB’s website: http://www.dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/report/2015%20Equity%20Reports%20Charter%20Trends%2011.24.15%20ry%20%28external%29.pdf
This unprecedented level of transparency is a major step forward in transparency around discipline. However, as CRPE points out, it is really just a starting point. In order for the data included in these reports to lead to positive changes for students and their families, board members and school leaders must understand and use the data. DC PCSB is working to help them do so by using the data in the reports to proactively address discipline-related concerns with individual schools. The report points out DC PCSB's strategy of using “board to board meetings” to bolster communication and understanding. The authorizer reaches out to schools with higher than average suspension/expulsion rates and requires that leadership attend these board to board meetings. These meetings are intended to provide an opportunity for candid and proactive discourse, and also to build a strong partnership between schools and the authorizer. One charter board member who has participated in a board to board meeting said, “ "In my experience, the board-to-board meeting is both a useful call to action and a heartening reminder of the DC PCSB's support. My school knows we have areas for improvement, and meeting with the DC PCSB not only reminded us that they are monitoring our progress but also that they can be valuable resources as we think through our challenges and how to address them."
DC PCSB does not require that a school address problems with discipline in any particular or prescribed way. By focusing only on student outcomes and without requiring any single type of change, DC PCSB avoids intruding in school decisions about operational and behavioral programs, leaving it up to the school’s board members and leadership team to find the best approaches and programs for their instructional model and target student population. This hands-off approach allows for a full spectrum of school models, from “no-excuses” to “whole child” and eliminates the one-size-fits-all approach. But DC PCSB's proactive approach since the Equity Reports were first developed lessens the chances that a school with high rates or suspensions/expulsions will fly under the radar.
Charter Board Partners recommends that every charter school board in DC (and beyond) commit to the following steps in order to ensure that the approaches to student behavior in DC's charter sector are as deliberate and thoughtful as approaches to academic content delivery.
1. Show up. Board members should attend all board-to-board meetings called by DC PCSB, participate in training opportunities offered by DC PCSB and other charter support organizations, and actively seek out tools, resources, and training. Visit charterboards.org to learn about our resources, or to ask us to connect you to organizations like the National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools or the DC Special Education Cooperative for more information.
2. Understand the data about discipline. Every board should be familiar with the data regarding discipline in its own school, and know how it compares to citywide averages (and preferably also with comparable schools). Boards also should have a sense of trends--are these rates going up or down over time in their school, and why? The CRPE report points out that almost all board members need support and training to understand the complicated issues related to school discipline policies. DC charter school boards need general training to better understand these issues, and most boards also need specific help interpreting the data about their specific schools.
3. Hold the school accountable for using the data. The annual Equity Reports provide important data, but it is not timely. Boards should ensure that their school leaders are collecting these data regularly and routinely, and sharing it with the board. The annual release of the data should surprise no one on the board. Many boards request that their school leader include discipline statistics on their monthly dashboard, along with other data such as academic and attendance.
4. Ask the right questions. While the school leader plays a huge role in handling discipline, it is the role of the board to know what those policies are, how often they are reviewed, what support and training school leader receive in creating strong and compliant policies, how the school administration and teachers implement those policies, and what training they receive on an ongoing basis. Boards should also regularly ask tough questions about the data they are seeing, especially if the overall discipline incidents or high or it is apparent that certain sub-groups are being suspended or expelled at higher rates than others.
5. Prioritize discipline. Most charter school boards do not consider discipline policies to be at the top of their strategic agendas. The issues are complicated, challenging, tense, and outside the wheelhouse of most board members. As the CRPE report points out, boards tend to cede these issues to the school leader. However, how a school deals with discipline issues is a core part of the functioning and the culture of a school, not to mention its adherence to federal and local laws, and while boards need to stay in the governance lane, they should actively provide oversight in this area.
Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is the Deputy Director at the DC Public Charter School Board, and a third-term board member of Charter Board Partners. Carrie Chimerine Irvin is the President and Co-Founder of Charter Board Partners.