Zero Tolerance policies, as practiced in school districts around the country, are now widely ridiculed and condemned. Rightfully so. Thoughtless and indiscriminate application of such policies has led to members of high school baseball teams being expelled for having baseball bats in their trunks, and to five‐year‐olds being expelled from Kindergarten for making handgestures in the shape of guns.1
As disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office have increased, so has the frequency of outof‐ school suspensions. You will hear from other speakers today the harm that these can do to the suspended student. Fortunately, there are much better discipline policies available to us, and I would like to begin my testimony by describing one such hypothetical alternative:
Imagine a school district that resolved not to expel students or use out‐of‐school suspensions. Instead, let’s say it vigorously and consistently enforced a clear code of conduct, giving detentions for small violations and in‐school-suspensions for more serious transgressions like starting fights.
These in‐school‐suspensions would assign a host of duties intended to discourage repeat offenses and encourage civilized behavior. Suspended students might write reflective essays about their behavior and why it was inappropriate. They could be assigned clean‐up duties around the school. They could also be required to write a letter of apology to their fellow classmates, teacher, and principal, and this letter could be read out to the class or even at a school assembly.
Since disruptive students are often behind academically, they could be required to attend Saturday morning classes to help them catch up. And as a way of illustrating that their behavior was beneath the standards expected of students of their age, they might be assigned to a different class at a lower grade level during the period of their in‐school suspension, and required to do all the work assigned in that class.
The interesting thing about this hypothetical school district is that it is not hypothetical and it is not a school district. The policies I’ve just described are those that have been in place for a decade at the American Indian Model charter schools, often abbreviated as “AIM” schools. The name of this small network of three charter schools is vestigial: the student body today is primarily, South‐East Asian, Hispanic, and black. Virtually all the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, and the schools are all located in the heart of Oakland, California, one of the most violent and crime‐ridden cities in America.
Oakland’s Public School district has its own armed police force, one of its elementary schools suspended 97 students for acts of violence in a single recent year,2 and that isn’t the district’s worst school. It’s typical for multiple students to be shot each year, with several fatalities. Bullying and fights on school grounds are a daily occurrence in the district.
But the American Indian Charter Schools are different. I’ve visited them, interviewed their students, teachers, and administrators, and studied their academic achievement.3 This is what I’ve found:
The atmosphere at these schools is orderly and studious. Attendance rates are around 99 percent. There are no metal detectors and no on‐campus police. Violence is almost unheard of. The average number of fights across all three schools combined is about 3 per year. Sixth grade teachers—those teaching students experiencing the American Indian Model for the first time— hand out detentions for any behavior that disrupts the class. Talking with those younger middleschool students, it’s obvious that many of them chafe at the relentlessness of the schools’ discipline policy. They’re kids. It’s natural for them to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. But those same students who roll their eyes at all the detentions their middle school hands out, are quick to report how different their school is from the district schools they recently left behind, and which many of their friends still attend. They tell stories, in shocked and dismayed voices, of the bullying, fighting, and drug‐dealing that routinely go on in the district schools, and they are very happy that these things are incredibly rare at their AIM school.
By the time they reach high school, AIM students not only behave with great maturity, they have excellent study habits and skills. Teachers at the high school level spend virtually no time on discipline. Because they don’t have to. They spend all their time teaching. The students are self‐motivated, and proud of their academic success. And they are very academically successful. When I studied the performance of all of California’s 68 charter school networks last year, I found that AIM schools were the highest performing by a wide margin. AIM students are just as far ahead of students at the well‐respected KIPP charter schools as KIPP students are ahead of students at regular public schools. That is after controlling for the race and socio‐economic status of the students, as well as peer effects. In fact, low‐income Hispanic and African American students at AIM schools outperform the state wide average for wealthier white and Asian students.
Their entire graduating classes are generally accepted to multiple 4 year colleges, often quite prestigious ones. I’ve interviewed AIM school alumni currently attending or having graduated from colleges like Berkeley and Dartmouth, I know a number of others are currently enrolled at Stanford. The AIM model shows that it is possible to design discipline policies vastly better for students than the cavalier use of expulsions and out‐of‐school suspensions. What’s more, there are ways of systematically encouraging the adoption of similarly effective discipline practices. And I will discuss those in a moment.
But it is also painfully clear that we are not there yet. Today, policies like the ones in use at the AIM schools are rare exceptions. So if of out‐of‐school suspensions were curtailed tomorrow in districts like Oakland, they would not be instantly replaced with highly effective alternatives. Knowing that, it is crucial to ask: what would they be replaced with? What would happen if principals facing extensive discipline problems in conventional public schools suddenly curtailed their use of out‐of‐school suspensions?
That’s not a rhetorical question. In fact, it has already been answered in a forthcoming study in the journal International Economics Review.4 In that study, Rochester University professor Joshua Kinsler discovered that cutting out‐of‐school suspensions in schools with many disruptive students lowers overall student achievement.
Why is that? As we know, out of school suspensions do no good for the suspended student academically, but Kinsler found that they do appear to benefit the rest of the school, presumably by making it easier for teachers to teach the non‐disruptive children.
Professor Kinsler’s findings reminded me of an essay I came across recently, dealing with school violence. It reflects on bullying suffered by the author when he was a boy, and how it was dealt with by his school. I’d like to share a brief quote with you: