Thursday, February 2, 2012

Skyrocketing rate of discipline at Hoover School

It turns out that parents who thought that our school’s use of disciplinary measures was skyrocketing were not imagining things. After a series of email exchanges with the principal and district administrators (starting here), I submitted this formal request for information. Here’s what the district’s response to it showed:

Last academic year, from the start of school until Winter Break, the school sent 15 written disciplinary reports home to parents. This year, during that same period, the number was 196. Yes, that’s a twelve hundred percent increase.

Last year, during that time, there were no in-school suspensions (technically called “in-school restrictions”). This year, there were 17.

Last year, during that time, there were no out-of-school suspensions. This year, there were three. There were no expulsions in either year.

The superintendent’s office included a letter arguing that no one should use these data for comparison purposes because of the many variables that affect how disciplinary incidents are recorded. I don’t find the argument very convincing, and I’m especially put off by its attempt (foreshadowed by the principal’s emails) to scapegoat the previous principal. Both the superintendent’s letter and the principal’s emails were quick to imply that the previous principal was doing something wrong, but they couldn’t quite get their story straight about what she was doing wrong. On the one hand, the superintendent’s office, like one of the principal’s emails, implies that the previous principal did not keep accurate records of disciplinary incidents. The superintendent’s letter says that last year’s numbers seem “unlikely,” and so it is “likely that the parent contacts were made but not recorded.” At the same time, though, the principal’s emails repeatedly emphasize that there is “a difference in how those behaviors which are bad choices are being handled this year” and that there were “behaviors that should have been worked through in the past and never were.” (And again, many parents have commented on the increase.) So was there a big increase, or not?

It’s true that the numbers for the second half of last year are higher (though still far lower than this year’s): 1 out-of-school suspension, 1 in-school suspension, and 50 disciplinary reports sent home to parents. But it also seems reasonable that the numbers would naturally be higher in the second semester, since you would expect that there would be some warnings given early in the year before the reports kicked in. One can only imagine what the numbers for the second half of this year will be. In any event, you can read the superintendent’s letter, below, and see if you agree that the reported numbers shed no light on whether discipline has steeply increased from last year to this year.

Here’s what I think the most plausible hypothesis is: Last year, we had a principal who used a lighter hand with discipline. Maybe when kids were sent to the principal’s office, she had a serious talk with them, and then sent them on their way. Maybe she put a high value on remaining approachable. Maybe she contacted parents only for serious problems, and then often by phone or in person instead of through an impersonal letter. Maybe she would have balked at the idea of accusing a third-grader of sexual harassment. I certainly had my disagreements with the previous principal, but that approach to discipline seems perfectly reasonable for elementary-school-age children.

This year – although the new principal herself acknowledges that misbehavior has not increased, and that the kids are, “overall, very well-behaved” – somebody decided to step up the use of discipline by several orders of magnitude. Why? We can only guess. The principal seems to believe that this heavy-handed law-enforcement approach to behavior is just what kids need. Another theory is that the district is worried about the racial disparities in its discipline numbers, and has decided to address the issue, not by treating minority kids better, but by treating all the kids harshly. In any case, nobody involved seems interested in how the kids are experiencing this disciplinary crackdown, or how their attitude toward school is affected by this constant emphasis on behavior and discipline, or what values they learn by being subjected to this increasingly authoritarian approach, or whether this policy is creating a negative, adversarial environment in the school.

If the district really believes that this kind of steep increase in discipline and punishment is good for the kids, why doesn’t it just say so? Why does it try to evade the question of whether there’s really been an increase? Why doesn’t it directly address people’s objections to the policy, and defend it publicly? Why didn’t it announce the increase in advance, and try to persuade the community that it was a good idea before imposing it? If it’s such a great idea, what are they worried about?

I should point out that the district did not charge me for compiling the information, as it initially said that it would. Its letter makes a point, though, of saying that the district is under no obligation to compile any more numbers for me. To read the full response, click on the “Read More” link.

The district’s cover letter read:
Attached is a response to your request for information including the three behavior report templates. The behavior report and follow-up agreement are the templates being used this year. The office referral is the template from previous years.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
I’ve posted each page of the response as a JPEG file. Click the pictures to enlarge them.



KD said...

Is the followup agreement something that the parent, child and staff do together?

I find the followup agreement sort of creepy, especially the "What did I want" part.

I've never seen anything like this before, but I'd have no problem telling my kid not to fill it out.

WendyN said...

I think the whole "I have processed with your child" part is just as creepy. Yes, I've put your child through our non-feeling, non-emotional, one-size fits all machine to deal with their most likely age/situational-appropriate but non-school factory-appropriate behavior.

Marie said...

Thanks for pursuing this.

-The current principal's behavior report template reads as though it is sent home each time she sees a child for "misbehavior".
-The former principal's behavior report template says her policy is to send the report after the third time she met with a child.

Does it seem this difference in principal policy could account *in part* for the increased number of behavior reports sent home?

Marie said...

I am having trouble supporting the use of that followup agreement, (admittedly without knowing how exactly it is used!) My concern is particularly with Section 2, as "I wanted to challenge adults" and "I wanted to be in control of the situation" are listed as incorrect motivations for behavior.

I would like to know more about what kinds of incidents (minor, not major incidents) are resulting in kids being sent to the principal. Any information on that?

Margaret said...

The follow up agreement is more than a little worrisome -Question 3 "What is the right thing to do?", and number 4 "Since it is important that I am part of our school community, what can I do to make it right?"

Obviously the school disapproves of the behavior; what if the child and/or family doesn't? Am I correct in guessing that the school's beliefs are the only one's that matter and the child will never be given a chance to defend theirs?

Josh M said...

Who are they to say they're not obligated to provide you with additional data should you request it? Is there any legal ground for them to stand on when they make that claim, or are they just bluffing, hoping that a lowly citizen outside of their labyrinthine bureaucracy will keep quiet? (And with bloggers like "Anonymous" from an earlier post, maybe they think they have reason to think they can intimidate you into silence.)

Just a Teacher said...

I am a career teacher who has taught at 4 different schools (none of them being Hoover). I can honestly tell you that after teaching in the different schools I am happy to have PBIS in my school and in the schools that my children attend. I could spout out statistics for why but instead would like to give you a more personal look at why the use of PBIS has been such a positive in the school I teach in as well as in the schools my children attend.
First of all, PBIS is about teaching students expectations, then using positive feedback to reinforce the behaviors that are expected. I know many parents are against this because they believe children should just behave the way they are supposed to but in the real world that is not what happens. Teachers and school staff are becoming more and more responsible for helping parent children. Your children may have the best parents in the world but not all kids do. I have had students from every walk of life come in not knowing how to act in a classroom or how to walk down a hallway quietly to allow the classrooms around them learn. In my school days a student would never talk back to a teacher or tell them to “mind their own business” when the teacher asks them to do something but I and my colleagues get this on a daily basis. I believe that most teachers and administrators are not in the profession of teaching unless they want to teach-- in order for this to happen there have to be some rules in school. Have you ever tried to teach 18 Kindergarteners their letters with 5/6th graders walking down the hallway yelling and screaming? I have and it isn’t good.
Second, I have worked in schools that are very wishy-washy about what punishment is given for what infraction, and who gets punished or not. I challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of the victim in this case. Let’s say your daughter comes home complaining that she is being harassed at school, after a couple of teary days of this you decide to go talk to the administrator of the school. Would you prefer: A) the administrator says “who is harassing your daughter? Oh, no that kid comes from a good family, he would never do that. Or B) The administrator says “We have a process for dealing with these complaints, let me look further in to this?” and investigates to find out that your child has been being harassed. I have dealt with both situations. It is much better to have a system in place to deal with this than to have an administrator or school principal get to just pick and choose who they want to dole out punishments to or who they don’t.

Just a Teacher Cont. said...

Third, I am guessing that Hoover is in one of its first years of PBIS because of the back and forth between the district administrators and author. From what I read I gleaned that there is a new system for keeping data on behavior problems. Basically looking at the data from past years and data from this year would be like comparing apples and oranges. If you have never taken data on incident reports, for example, and this year you are taking data on incident reports then no matter how you look at it this year is going to have more incident reports. PBIS asks that more data be kept on incident reports, and problem behaviors. There are simple reasons behind this also. One reason to keep the data is to look for areas of concern in the building: for example if we are seeing a lot of incident reports at recess time maybe we need to re-teach the expectations for recess, or maybe there just needs to be more supervision on the playground. The second and what I find to be the more important reason behind this is to help the child. Here are a few examples of what I mean. These are actual stories that I have seen.
1. There is a boy, we will call him Johny, who has a huge blow up at school in the month of October each year. Without the documentation to see the pattern in his behavior Johny would be staffed to special ed as a behavior issue. With documentation the pattern was found and come to find out it always happens very close to the anniversary of his mother’s death. This is not a student who needed special ed. this is a student who needs counseling to deal with the death of his mom.
2. A girl named “Jane” is a perfect student until one week when she starts coming to school and talking back to teachers, not doing her work, or refusing to participate. The trouble is this is happening in PE, Music, and in the classroom. Her behavior is off but nothing too severe. If there is no record of these behaviors then this is not even noticed by school staff. Luckily, this is a school with PBIS. Jane’s parents get notes home about this behavior. After the third or fourth note they start to wonder what is going on and talk to Jane then take her to a doctor. Jane’s long-time babysitter had a new boyfriend who was molesting her. Her misbehavior was a cry for help.
These are a couple extreme cases but they are things that happen in this not so perfect world.
I write all of this because this is one thing that I have a strong opinion about. As a parent, I understand your right to criticize, but as a teacher it makes me very downhearted to hear of MORE criticism of peers and colleagues. We are all doing the best we can with budgets being cut, class sizes increasing, and less and less parent accountability. Teachers seem to be the ones being blamed by everyone these days…but guess what we are also the ones who are teaching you all. It would really be nice to hear about the good things we are doing every once and a while.

FedUpMom said...

The "follow-up agreement" is worthy of its own post. It's based on obnoxious assumptions, and it's also WAY over the head of many elementary-school kids. My 8-year-old with language delays couldn't even begin to process this thing. She isn't that verbal, and she isn't that self-aware.

Asking a child that age to analyze what she wanted when she misbehaved is punitive. It's just baffling and scary to the child.

Chris said...

Just A Teacher – Thanks for those thoughtful comments. Actually, Hoover is in its third year of PBIS, so it is a little frustrating, after being told for years that PBIS is justified because of its effect on office referrals, to be told that the district now thinks that its disciplinary data for the first two years of the program is meaningless. Again, I think it’s much more likely that the previous principal just used a lighter hand. But I do think office referrals are affected by so many factors that it’s hard to see how it could ever be a meaningful way to assess PBIS. As a previous commenter pointed out, if the staff knows that their supervisors want to show that PBIS decreases office referrals, that alone is likely to lead to a decrease.

I appreciate the stories you tell about interactions with particular kids, but I go a little crazy when people act like the only alternative to PBIS and to an obsessive focus on behavior and discipline is to have no rules. That’s pure straw man: absolutely no one is suggesting that there be no rules and no discipline. And I’m definitely in favor – who wouldn’t be? – of school staff paying attention to the particular circumstances of a child’s life and what might be going on in it. None of that addresses the objections I’m making to what’s going on at our school.

First, PBIS. I can’t reiterate all of my objections to it here, but my main objection is that it teaches the lowest form of moral reasoning – be good so you can get stuff! – and makes no effort to engage the child in thinking for him- or herself about right and wrong. It focuses entirely on extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivation. The main lesson it teaches is unquestioning obedience to authority, and to do that it encourages materialism and acquisitiveness. And it causes the school to focus so much on behavior, behavior, behavior that school becomes more about “being good” – which inevitably means being quiet and obedient – than about questioning anything or thinking for oneself. And the expectations themselves are often ridiculous. Yes, there should be rules, but any emphasis on rule-following should be accompanied by an emphasis on thinking for yourself and on developing one's own moral reasoning: otherwise it's just obedience school. (Again, I could go on; click here to read more posts on it.)

If anything, PBIS discourages the school from paying any special attention to the particular circumstances of the child’s life. The entire PBIS model is behavioral: all that matters is changing the behavior, which is achieved through material rewards, not through any actual attempt to understand why a child is behaving as he or she is. To the extent that your school goes beyond that, it’s going beyond PBIS.

(continued in next comment)

Chris said...

(continued from previous comment)

Second, discipline. I’m not against it! But what’s wrong with the previous principal’s approach, if it is what I described? Isn’t there value in not ratcheting up the use of formal discipline to the point where the kids – again, we’re talking about elementary schoolers here – see the adults as their adversaries? I’m talking about a matter of degree, not a choice between having rules and not having rules. Right now, the school’s approach to discipline is way over the top.

Yes, if it was my child who was bullied, I’d be upset, and I’d want the school to address the problem. It does not follow that a heavy-handed, punitive approach to the accused bully – or that labeling him a “sexual harasser” – is the approach most likely to achieve the desired result. All I’m asking for is a more humane approach, and one that recognizes that there are costs to policing the kids’ behavior too heavy-handedly and going overboard with formal disciplinary procedures.

Please notice that I am focusing on school policies and practices, and that I’ve said repeatedly that the school has great teachers and that the teachers aren’t the ones who chose any of this. But people have to be able to speak up about issues like these without being accused of being insufficiently “positive” for doing so. The school has become a much less positive place for the kids this year, and that should be the main issue.

Again, I do appreciate it when teachers write in with actual stories of interactions with kids in school. I think we need to credit those, but I also think people need to credit the things we’re hearing about this particular school from the parents, many of whom are very unhappy with what’s going on.

Xphial said...

Some questions we should -
1. How is the data being collated ? Sure they write up on pieces of paper but will it make it to some kind of analysis tool (Excel, etc) to become information and meaningful?
2. Will it actually be looked at and can it be to the degree of granularity described by The Teacher Commentator? It seems to me that some teachers seem surprised by facts or history of their students when the relavent facts are in the student files. Parent mentions Johnny has ADD at parent-teacher conference and teacher has the "Eureka" moment to say "OH! That explains so MUCH of what I'm seeing".

Chris said...

Thanks everyone for those comments!

KD -- I don't know exactly how the follow-up agreement is done. My impression is that it is part of what the school mails to the principal, and that the schools expects (there's that word again) the parents to make the child fill it out, and then to sign it and have the child bring it back in. But that's third-hand information.

WendyN -- I agree.

Marie -- You might be right about the school now sending reports starting with the first incident rather than the third, and that that might explain part of the increase. It doesn't make me feel much better about the change, if it's true. The kids experience a note being sent home as a serious thing and as a punishment, so it would just mean that the school has increased the degree of punishment for first offenses. (Yikes, it's hard even to talk about this without slipping into law enforcement language.)

Marie and Margaret -- I agree completely about those items on the "agreement." I'm creeped out by the whole idea of coercing the child to "agree" to any of this. More on that topic here.

Josh -- I don't know exactly how far their legal obligations extend. It would be nice to think that the schools would not limit themselves to the bare minimum of information they're legally obliged to provide, and require formal records requests for even that. Of course, the only way to find out is to ask . . .

Xphial -- Those are good questions, but I think a better approach would be for the district to recognize the inadequacy of this kind of data to guide policy in an area as complex as education. They should recognize that teaching is much more of an art than a science. Instead of trying to find some number that will magically tell them whether they're succeeding -- and then tailoring their entire approach to game that number -- they should hire people with good judgment who share some fundamental values about what the goals of education are, and then let them use that judgment. I think this quest to reduce education to an algorithm is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

FedUpMom -- I agree that the Agreement is worth a post of its own. Stay tuned.

Mandy said...

I’ve been mulling over these last few posts and trying to decide where to begin. I apologize in advance for the soapbox.
The contract is indeed creepy. I can’t imagine ever having my child fill this out or sign it. I certainly wouldn’t sign it. Besides the fact that I think every question is totally inappropriate to be asking elementary age kids, what is it supposed to accomplish? If parents are not engaged with what’s happening at school, for whatever reason, is the note home and filling out the contract supposed to turn that around? If the parent’s are engaged and the note comes home are they supposed to have some sort of “Ah Ha!” moment and realize if they had just discussed the Hoover Star expectations that all everything would be fine? I resent getting parenting tips from the school, and tips on how to spend time with my kids. For the past couple of years we’ve been told the school was trying to save money by sending fewer things home by paper and encouraging people to view things electronically. I still get my weekly Hoover Headlines sent home even though I’ve signed up for the electronic version multiple times. At least 3/4 of what comes home is some parenting tip or advice.

I wanted also to respond to the Anonymous comment from a couple of posts back.
I'm at Hoover frequently and interact with students and staff on a regular basis. I've been to lunch with my kids at school. I've volunteered countless hours. I've given money to the PTA and supported fundraisers. I find the people I interact with to be lovely, kind people and the teachers, with few exceptions, to be extremely good at what they do and they love doing it. I however am fundamentally opposed to PBIS, I fear NCLB is ruining public education and RTTT is no better. I've seen the atmosphere and my children's attitude towards school change for the worse. I feel that I’m involved not only with my children’s school but to their education as a whole. Being “supportive” to me means advocating not only for my kids but for changes that I think will improve the school. I don't equate complacancy with support. I don’t believe voicing my opinion about policy is a personal attack. I support teachers. They are professionals and should be treated as such. I do not have a personal relationship with my children’s teachers, I have a professional relationship. If I’m advocating for my kid and I happen to disagree with a teacher’s method, and have a discussion about that, I certainly don’t feel I’m personally attacking that teacher. Part of a teacher’s job is to make judgements all day long, Joey is disruptive, Sally talks during class, Bobby is working very hard. Susie listens attentively. I would think given the fact that teachers make these subjective observations daily, that they can handle a discussion about a difference of opinion without feeling personally attacked. If they are feeling attacked, I would hope they would speak up. We expect more from the kids than what is expected of the adults.

Finally, I am continually frustrated that “support” at Hoover means attending a few meetings and keeping your thoughts to yourself.

FedUpMom said...

I resent getting parenting tips from the school, and tips on how to spend time with my kids.

I TOTALLY agree. Preach it, Sister!

Chris said...

Mandy -- I agree about the connection you're making between the "Follow-up Agreement" and the unsolicited parenting advice. The whole disciplinary approach seems to be based on an incredibly simplistic idea of how a school should interact with kids and families: that what kids and parents need most is simply to be told what to do. (Similar to the state educational material described here.)

Anonymous said...

I read a comment that supported the education system in place in this district and it was a pleasure. If you are ignorant and have so many issues with where your child goes to school, it is simple; move. There are many educators doing the best they can and nowadays, parents use school as daycare. The people who comment here are creating their children to be lesser quality human beings. I feel bad for them. It is unfortunate that we cannot support our communities and educators. Intelligence can be wasted on ignorant role models.

Chris said...

Anonymous – Any time you want to address the substance of what I’m actually arguing here, feel free. As for your “love it or leave it” principle, I addressed it here.

I’m rejecting your second comment because it makes derogatory remarks about my kids. Why is it that the people who see all criticism of the schools as a personal attack are the first to resort to personal attacks themselves, even against kids?

XPhial said...

"... and nowadays, parents use school as daycare. The people who comment here are creating their children to be lesser quality human beings. I feel bad for them. "

No, Anonymous One. We are doing our jobs as parents to make sure our kids grow up well-adjusted and healthy adults. The schools are are tasked to provide education and a healthy environment for our kids. I just don't like some of the effects the 'forced on school' programs like PBIS are having on my kids.

Elijah Bailey said...


"and nowadays, parents use school as daycare. The people who comment here are creating their children to be lesser quality human beings. I feel bad for them."

What is your life's context? The above statement quote is very telling.

1. Currently raising no children, thus lacking current parental point of view
2. At least a generation older of current parents the 'nowadays' word choice.
3. The generalization tone suggests a an isolationist view, an outsider, not invested in relationships or quality human interaction.
4. Such derisive wording implies a definitive and deliberate view on the equality - "lesser quality human beings"
5. A very negative, static view of the future - 'creating lesser quality human beings. I feel bad for the them.' The commentor feels that their futures are written in stone.

Is "The Naked Sun" a favorite book of yours? You sound like a Solarian roboticist.

Chris said...

XPhial and Elijah -- Thanks for the comments. I think there are some people who just can't conceive of criticizing what goes on in their kids' public school. I don't think I'd want to put those people in charge of developing my kids' critical thinking skills.

Chris said...

One post-script: The district has just admitted that it unlawfully failed to disclose records in response to records requests made by Ed Stone and David Gurwell between 2009 and 2011. Stone and Gurwell had to sue to get the district to make that admission; the district has now agreed to pay Stone and Gurwell's attorney's fees, to the tune of almost $5000.

“The district has recently taken substantive steps to improve its handling of open records requests from the public, which should dramatically reduce the likelihood of similar litigation in the future," the district said. The first such step should be to stop seeing all criticism as unsupportive, and to stop seeing all critics as adversaries.

“Our point of view was that one of the responsibilities of citizens in a free society is to ask questions of government entities,” Stone said. I wish the people who are in charge of educating my kids had come more readily, and without litigation, to that view.

Chris said...

The Times chimes in on the trend toward “'zero tolerance'” policies, which are increasingly common in schools and often cover too broad a range of misbehaviors.”

Chris said...

The Iowa City Patch reports that the legislature is considering a bill to strengthen the open records law by establishing a state board that could advise citizens about their rights under the law and penalize government officials who violate it.

Towns and municipal utilities have lobbied against the law, however, on the ground that it “isn’t needed” and would be an unnecessary expense. The lobbying has already succeeded in reducing the proposed board’s staff from two attorneys to one. It’s nice to know our tax dollars and utility payments are going to pay lobbyists to campaign against making government records more accessible.

The governor’s office supports the proposal, however. “‘Why should a citizen have to hire a lawyer and spend tens of thousands of dollars in some cases to get information that should have been handed over when they walked in the door?’ asked Bill Monroe, Gov. Terry Branstad’s special adviser for government transparency.”

To drive the point home, Monroe cited recent instances of citizens having to engage in lengthy litigation to obtain records they were entitled to see. One of the examples he cited was the Iowa City Community School District’s acknowledgement that it violated the law by failing to turn records over to Ed Stone and David Gurwell.

Chris said...

The latest: Study gives Iowa an 'F' in public access to information

Chris said...

Update: The legislature has passed the bill to create a new state board to enforce the open records law, and the Governor is expected to sign it.