Address Bad Ed Policy and School-to-prison Pipeline

/ 17 January 2014 / eunice

Sarah Lahm, Minnesota 2020, January 17, 2014 – Can we tackle the school-to-prison pipeline without also addressing bad education policy?

According to a recent news report, the Obama Administration wants the nation’s schools to abandon “…overly zealous discipline policies” that are more likely to send students to court than to the principal’s office. The report notes that the students most vulnerable to this are not white, and not female.

In response, I would like the Obama Administration to also abandon its “overly zealous” emphasis on high stakes testing, narrowed curriculums, and loveless learning environments for our nation’s children, through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and its more emphatic companion, Race to the Top (RTTT).

What’s more, I would love for Obama Administration officials, such as Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to admit that there is a clear and troubling connection between zero tolerance discipline policies and current national education policies, especially for non-white, non-female students.

The Advancement Project, which describes itself as an “action tank” focused on pushing for a “just democracy for those left behind in America,” published a policy paper in 2010 called “Test, Punish, and Push Out: How ‘Zero Tolerance’ and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” and it is definitely worth reading. In fact, this paper makes the argument that “high stakes testing policies are the direct result” of zero tolerance criminal justice policies.

For me, this is a stunning and profound connection. Just as our country moved to “crack down” on crime and sentence people to very long, very punitive prison terms, we began to use high stakes testing as a means of punishment and starvation—of resources, funds, and well-rounded curriculums—for our nation’s schools. As the Advancement Project’s paper notes, since NCLB came along in 2002, “both the use of high stakes tests and the severity of consequences attached to them have risen dramatically, leaving a rapidly dwindling set of opportunities for students who do not score well on these exams.”

University of New Hampshire professor Joe Onosko picks up on this by describing how RTTT ties teacher evaluations, at least in part, to student test scores. In a climate like this, when so much is riding—for the teacher—on how students perform on high stakes tests, Onosko warns of classrooms where the important bond between teacher and student, and a healthy tolerance for less than perfect student behavior, “is likely to be significantly undermined.”

I have a son. He goes to a public school. He is a typically energetic, exuberant boy who told me that, on his first day back at school from winter break, he and some others did not have any recess or break time because they had to “catch up on math.” He is in third grade. At this point, his need for exercise, play, and social engagement with his peers is just as important, if not more so, than any need to “catch up on math.”

I wonder about this: If he were not a white, middle class child, would his need for movement be misinterpreted as bad, someday prison-worthy, behavior?