Inequitable discipline

Racial minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school, as per “National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions”:

  • African American boys receive harsher penalties than white students for the same offense
  • African American girls, Latino students (at middle and high school levels), Native American students and students with disabilities are also overrepresented in suspensions
  • there is “emerging evidence” of disproportionate disciplinary practices involving English learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students

The effectiveness and appropriateness of suspension as a disciplinary tool is also suspect:

  • Suspensions are most often used for conduct that is not a threat to safety.
  • disparities are most pronounced for subjective offenses, such as insubordination or defiance

Further troubling is the consequence of receiving suspensions:

  • Suspensions can lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and a higher likelihood that students will be arrested and incarcerated

Especially in light of more effective alternatives both for preventing and responding to discipline issues:

  • Positive relationships among students, teachers and parents are more important than neighborhood crime and poverty at predicting school safety.
  • interventions that improve the quality of academic instruction contribute to lower suspension rates
  • schools with more diverse faculty and student bodies have fewer disciplinary issues
  • The growing use of restorative justice in schools may help in these efforts because it increases opportunities for positive contact between races and helps teachers and administrators see students as individuals rather than members of a particular race

We need to work to understand differences, not shut them out.

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Personalizing education for special needs

One of the most compelling arguments for personalized learning is the importance of providing an appropriate education to students with special needs. Such students challenge the system, with unexpected strengths and weaknesses that are out of scale with the norm. Simply slowing down (or speeding up) the pace of instruction won’t serve their needs, particularly as they may be exceptional on more than one dimension and in more than one direction. For them, personalized learning that decouples different skills is imperative, a way to serve their needs and extend their abilities at the same time.

While special-education laws are limited in scope due to their approach of simply setting minimum requirements, they do provide critical safeguards for supporting students at the K-12 level. As they graduate to adulthood, these students are expected to assume more responsibility to advocate for and seek accommodations for their needs if they pursue advanced study at institutions of higher education (IHEs). Even so, these minimum accommodations only grant access, and sometimes may not do enough to constitute effective instruction that enables success. Simply fulfilling minimum requirements may allow IHEs to avoid litigation, but failing to adequately serve their students is a failure to invest their resources wisely.

Challenging though it may be to (re)design instructional materials with different constraints, IHEs may find that special-needs students can provide a valuable test case, instantiating extremes on the spectrum of students they serve. These adjustments will also help them support English language learners, disadvantaged-but-capable students with gaps in their backgrounds, returning students who remember some lessons but forgot others, and career changers in search of very specific skills to flesh out their resume—deserving students whom the traditional system fails, all too often. Not all students fit the same mold, nor should they. Adapting instruction around their needs develops their potential and gives them the opportunity to give back.