Add Louisiana Superintendent of Elementary and Secondary Education Cade Brumley to the roll call of the woke.
Brumley signaled fealty to the notion that systemic racism built into law and the Constitution on behalf of the white majority against non-white minorities when he proclaimed a reeducation program would commence for public school teachers and administrators. Ostensibly to reduce student suspensions, particularly among blacks whose rate is twice that of whites, it seeks to show adults and students how to set goals, demonstrate empathy for others, establish positive relationships and make responsible decisions.
All well and good. But the intended program contains a unit on social and emotional learning utilizing a “racial equity” approach. This paradigm claims that “implicit bias” towards minorities results in unjust outcomes in educator actions such as punishing through suspensions, that end up prejudiced unfairly against minorities – although statistics routinely show students of Asian background receive suspensions at lower rates than white students – in addition to the impact of explicit bias, although such overt racism supposedly emerges far less frequently.
This outcome-driven theory – which assumes other factors external to schooling play a less significant, if not an insignificant, role in student behavior, meaning that disparate outcomes claimed to emanate from prejudicial treatment must demonstrate biased white educator attitudes – becomes a causal agent in the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline. The negativity surrounding suspension plus lost class time, according to this view, disproportionately forces students into life situations that encourage criminal behavior.
Two methods in vogue allegedly ameliorate the harshness of suspensions without jeopardizing other schooling goals. “Restorative justice” emphasizes nonpunitive conflict resolution, such as student-mediated discussions intended to repair harm caused by student misbehavior and attempts to get to the “root cause” of the behavior. “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports” tries to preempt conflict and misbehavior by teaching behavioral expectations in the same manner as any core curriculum subject, usually by making classroom behavior into a game, with students receiving points for good behavior, losing points for bad behavior, and eventually cashing in those points for prizes.
But the research largely invalidates the entire thesis which demands racial equity as a palliative. At most, suspensions cause a small short-term negative effect on student learning, with an uncertain impact on the longer term, with other non-school factors likely far more important in the association of lesser student achievement with greater number of suspensions.
And, both presumed solutions to replace the tool of suspension create other problems. While marginally turning out-of-school to in-school suspensions had slightly positive impacts on attendance and achievement – although hardly reducing the racial suspension “gap” – significant reductions of both cause large reductions in schools’ overall academic achievement. In fact, large decreases in “conduct” offense suspensions – the kind theoretically where implicit bias manifests – lead to increases in suspensions for serious misbehavior.
In fact, a study from the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans showed that black students get suspended relatively more frequently than white students for the “objective” offense of fighting rather than for the “subjective” offense of disrespecting authority. This is consistent with other studies that suggest socioeconomic factors largely influence student behavior that translates into suspensions, and that administrators and teachers on the whole don’t exhibit racial bias in suspension decisions.
With such a paucity of evidence behind the racial equity thesis or that approaches to mitigate its reputedly pernicious effects poorly replace suspensions as a means of discipline, why would Brumley give in to this trendiness? Perhaps because under the Democrat former Pres. Barack Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education threatened schools if they didn’t reduce suspensions, based upon that theory. Fortunately, the Republican former Pres. Donald Trump Administration rescinded that.
Brumley, with good reason, may suspect the Democrat Pres. Joe Biden Administration will reinstate that guidance and wants to get ahead of things. It’s not a bad thing to institute measures that ensure teachers and students share behavioral expectations. Yet he would serve better children, families, and school employees by resisting the impulse to surrender to faddish theory that doesn’t make schools any safer or better places to learn. If necessary, the Legislature should pass legal guardrails to accomplish that.