The Monorail salesman and School Discipline in Philadelphia

In his article “Philly Schools Tormented by Decision to Reduce Suspensions”, professional think-tanker Max Eden writes “Perhaps students were staying at home because they were scared to be at school”. The first word is critical.

 

As far as I can tell, Mr. Eden has never spent significant time in a Philadelphia public school. He has never, based on a reading of his resume, spent significant time in any schools other than the one he attended as a child. It’s possible that this has led to the massive errors in his piece. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Mr. Eden’s assessment of discipline is not based in anything but ideology, a platform desperately looking for a voter.

 

Eden’s piece first posits that Philadelphia schools are soft on discipline, causing a “catastrophe” in classrooms. This is absurd: Philadelphia has so many alternative placement schools it is nearly impossible to keep them straight. Eden sees disruptive students as a plague, and yet remains blind to the thousands of “disruptive” students legally removed from the system.

 

This willful blindness is the keystone. The report Eden cites is explictly vague about how this new policy affects schools:

Philly schools used to suspend more kids, we still suspend a shocking number of kids (per capita) compared to the rest of the state, and the policy change hasn’t done much to conclusions 1 and 2. Was 2007 a hidden Golden Age for Philly students? If not, arguing that recent changes have done anything to change the overall disciplinary practice is laughable. Hell , 77% of schools “tormented” by the policy actively refused to follow it. The researchers found schools that fully complied with the policy had no decline in achievement, while those who suspended more kids actually lost ground.

 

When Eden talks about kids staying home more in schools with fewer suspensions, any teacher or administrator would guess that they were served with an off-the-books suspension, the “we don’t want this on her record” special. That’s the easy part.

 

Where this moves from comical to insidious is his logic as to the “bad kids”. The Fordham report asks if “the push to reduce the number of suspensions is harmful to the rule-abiding majority”. This is bad. This is akin to contending that the murder of unarmed black motorists is bad, but asking why they couldn’t just use their turn signals.

 

School discipline, the act to find and ultimately help the troubled students, is as much a victim of bias and white supremacy as anything else. One report found black students 6 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Even controlling for income, black and Latino students were 3 times more likely to be supsended. A study from Villanova, not quite UC Berkley, found that schools with more black and brown students were more likely to expel kids for serious violations, even if they had similar numbers of serious violations as a whiter school. The numbers are most dire for black girls. One remarkable study found that, within the African American community, girls with darker skin were more likely to suspended than their lighter-skinned peers.

 

Real data and science show that white adults – myself included – see black and brownkids are aggressive, hyper-sexualized, and violent compared to their white peers. As teachers, we write up incidents, call the principal, and send kids to the office. We don’t think much about our biases. That’s the difference between a “troublemaker” and “boys being boys” or “too much energy”, the tall fence around the “rule-abiding majority”. 

 

I’ve seen suspensions work. And I’d like to think that my school, 95% African American and nearly 100% impovershed, uses them well. But that’s the problem. Nobody believes they are the culprit. Nobody sees themselves a racist. The unwillingness to look inward, my unwillingness, is what allows these systems of white supremacy to thrive.

 

Mr. Eden does not see this because he does not wish to. He can only see through the lens of school choice, big government, or The Bad People. Mr. Eden sells himself as a scientist looking for a solution. He is much more a huckster looking for a mark, or the Monorail salesman from The Simpsons. He has traveled from town to town, peddling the same conservative talking points, hoping somebody takes the bait. We won’t.

I’ve sold Atlas Shrugged o Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum I’ve put them on the map!

 

The solutions to inequitable are difficult, but clear: Financial and administrative support for positive solutions and restorative practices, persistent and high-quality anti-bias training, more guidance counselors, and more teachers of color in the classroom. Find a better way to measure discipline than raw numbers. Plan for the long term. Mr. Eden and his Fordham clique cannot process this, they lack the vocabulary to deal with what really happens in schools.