School Reform in Baltimore: Fewer Suspensions Equal Better Results

The following originally appeared in the Washington Post.

At a time when the underachievement of black boys in the United States can only be described as a national crisis, there is finally some good news. This fall, Baltimore City Schools chief executive Andres Alonso proudly reported that black male teens in his district are staying in school and graduating in higher numbers. The announcement made headlines, and for good reason: It proves that there are successful strategies in approaching this seemingly intractable problem. We urge other cities across the country to learn from Baltimore's creative approach.

So how did they do it? School systems, local philanthropies, not-for-profit groups, government officials and others worked together with the singular goal of improving the academic lives of those who need it most.

With help from community partners such as Open Society Institute-Baltimore, the city's schools adopted a graduated system of consequences and interventions for student misconduct that takes into account the student's age, the type of misbehavior and other factors. It makes suspension a consequence of last resort. Increased funding from the state of Maryland also played an important role, along with the closure of big, failing middle schools and a concerted effort by school leaders to woo dropouts back to the classroom.

We have long known that excessive use of suspension and expulsion results in higher rates of school absence, academic failure and, eventually, quitting school altogether. Evidence also points to suspensions leading to higher incidence of arrests and juvenile detention. Once the commitment was made to address disruptive behavior in school, suspensions in the district were cut in half.

Consider: In the 2003-04 school year, fewer than one out of two black male students graduated. Baltimore schools handed out nearly 26,000 suspensions to a student body of just over 88,000 kids. Two-thirds were to boys and, reflecting the city's population, nearly all were to black students.

Fast forward to the 2009-10 school year: Two out of three black male students graduated, while the District handed out fewer than 10,000 suspensions. Importantly, far fewer were longer than five days. You would be hard pressed to find other urban districts with that kind of progress.

Research has shown that out-of-school suspensions hurt academic progress; are a major factor in students' dropping out; and because they don't teach new behaviors, fail to improve school climates. These findings don't mean that schools should ignore bad behavior. And dangerous behavior by students shouldn't be tolerated. But the data show that most incidents do not fall into that "dangerous" category and that alternatives such as in-school suspension and mediation are much more effective.

Keeping more young people in school means more time for learning. When more learning happens, more students graduate. Black males are no exception to this simple fact.

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I am a clinical psychologist and college teacher, now retired and engaged in writing. I am working on a book and have read dozens of articles on value added, merit pay, teacher evaluation, etc. There are important issues never mention: 1) The tremendous sense of entitlement that characterizes students now, 2) grade inlfation, 3) indoctrination by the media of hero worship celebrities which preoccupied students with people irrelevant to their lives, 4) teachers colleges with no standards,5)educ. boards of head of financial corporations instead of educators, the anti-intellectual attitude in America and contempt for teachers. There are more.

Thanks, Harold, for your sharing your insights. Transforming educational outcomes for our children is a complex challenge that requires a multi-level strategy which includes increased teacher support & training, fair and equitable disipline policies, along with community partnerships that support the whole family in the learning process - just to name a few!

Glad to see the emphasis changing from an overly punitive system that does not work in school, or out of it either. Wanted you to know about an evaluation involving 4400 students in discipline settings in 41 schools in the South. In addition to being assigned a software-based behavior training intervention to address specific infractions (talking back, fighting etc), they had the option to privately look up what they thought might be underlying their behavior. More than a third looked up trauma related topics, especially alcoholic parent and beaten, behavior changed and repeat referrals to in school suspension went way down, despite most ever addressing these issues with a counselor. You can see more at www.

Thanks so much for responding to the article and alerting us about this report. Will certainly take a look at it.

Even thought the article doesn't go in more detail about the alternative measures from punishment, I think that restorative approaches (based in restorative justice) is where we need to go not only to find out the underlining problems that cause acting up in students, but also to promote a culture of peace in which dis-empowered students find their voice and develop the art of listening. No human being can develop intellectually without a balanced attention to all the aspects of their lives. Circle process is a restorative approach that allows awareness to these aspects.

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