Nathaniel Sweet, the former HCPS legislative intern, current Political Science major at the University of South Florida, and guest author of Shifting the Discipline Discussion, returns with this short reflection on differentiating between behaviors and, ultimately, what the fundamental challenge is behind behaviors at certain schools here in Hillsborough and across Florida.
I think that when we talk about our approach to student behavior, we need to make a distinction between different levels of behavior problems. If we’re talking about a student who gets in an altercation with a friend over some personal drama, or a student who’s trying their best but gets frustrated and acts out, those are textbook restorative justice cases. That’s all about developing grit, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution.
Cases like persistent discipline problems, or violence against school staff, or major destruction of school property–those are different issues entirely; they fall well outside of reasonable expectations for classroom management. However, I still think that it’s unwise to use suspension in these cases. Instead, I think we should re-think referrals, not in terms of suspensions, but in terms of a referral you’d get from your general practitioner to see a specialist. More on that in a second.
Like you mentioned in our last conversation, it seems like the worst behavior problems are concentrated at extreme ends of the income distribution. Some of the wealthiest kids feel like they’re invincible, while some of the poorest kids feel like they’re invisible. The former think they can get away with stuff no matter what, while the latter believe they’ll be punished and pushed out no matter what. Entitlement at one end, disillusion at the other.
And in some ways, they’re both right. Very few rich suburban white kids end up poor later in life regardless of what they do, and the inverse is true for poor urban and rural kids. Your home zip code is a much stronger predictor of whether you’ll get caught up in the criminal justice system than your actual propensity to commit a crime. All the while, the animating force behind these outbursts tends to be something deeper & outside of the classroom–after all, disruptive students are very much in the minority.
When it comes to the poorest kids, then, I think that disruptive students need referrals in the sense that they’re sent to three resources: a) a counselor, to help them unpack their feelings about school and why they act out; b) a social worker, to uncover the bigger problems they face that might be driving their behavior; and c) an ombuds, someone who they can trust and rely on to advocate for them in creating a plan to get them back on track.
Critical to this framework is that it recognizes the seriousness of the student’s misbehavior without inherently criminalizing or pathologizing them. It approaches the student with curiosity rather than presumption, hopefully helping to re-build trust. Of course, that can only begin to happen if district leaders work with teachers and school employees to demand more funding from Tallahassee, but it always goes back to funding and leadership anyway, doesn’t it?
As a broader matter, I think that there’s a strong role for educators to play in movements advocating for policies that combat income inequality and child poverty. Rich kids wouldn’t feel like they were above the rules if we didn’t have an economy that concentrates such a huge amount of wealth and power in the hands of the few.
More importantly, however, we wouldn’t need to invest so heavily in wrap-around services like healthcare, nutrition, and mental health for low-income kids if those things were guaranteed as rights by state and federal governments. We wouldn’t need to worry about homeless students if cities and agencies guaranteed affordable housing, either through subsidy or public provision. We wouldn’t need to worry about students coming to school unprepared or without supplies if their parents had stable full-time work that paid a living wage.
To put a finer point on it, maybe the solution for helping poor kids learn is just to make them less poor.
As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog or appear on the podcast to discuss the issues, please email me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!
As any economist will often say, everything has a cost. Even things that appear to be “free” in one sense or another have costs, often ones that we do not think about beforehand.
Just over two decades ago now, under the direction of then-Governor Jeb Bush, Florida legislatively effected the A+ plan, ushering in an age of sham school grades that tell us nothing more than a neighborhood’s relative level of affluence. The ramifications of what has grown to become Florida’s “test and punish” model of public education are still not widely recognized by elected officials who have fallen prey to a false idol–data.
Data, while useful, has a corrupting influence due to its ability to be manipulated, which is clearly what the Florida Legislature has done to continue the ruse for so long. To outside interests such as businesses and would-be future citizens who only see “data” without the proper context or history, the cherry-picked points pronounced by legislators ignore the bigger picture and at what cost these data were produced.
The cost, unfortunately, has been all too human.
When we reduce human beings to numbers, whether Lawson IDs, VAM scores, pass rate percentages, or any other metric, we marginalize the inherent dignity of that living, breathing, human being.
This is not right and it must stop. But it will take bold action on the part of all leaders throughout the Sunshine State to stand up and push back against such a demoralizing and dehumanizing way to “prepare students for life.”
No one will deny that this is happening all across the state of Florida, but Hillsborough County Public Schools is a perfect case study for what happens when we double-down on terrible ideas that erode the dignity of our students and educators.
Since 2015, HCPS has had a bold strategic plan that included the idea of 90×20, which largely meant raising our then-current high school graduation rates from 76% to 90% by the year 2020, a noble goal to be certain. But a 24% increase in a five year period? Surely it’s not possible, right?
All things are possible when the FLDOE is constantly helping all Florida districts have similar increases because it is in the state’s interest to control the narrative of “success” happening across virtually all 67 districts. Did students suddenly become smarter? Did educators suddenly become much better teachers? Or have unseen state assessment measures such as the FSA merely been rigged to foster this false narrative?
My money is on the smoke and mirrors of this entire sham system and how political panderers in most districts are compelled to go-along-to-get-along by cooking the books, from lower and lower exam grades to so-called “credit recovery” factories, all in the name of helping kids cross that stage and receive a diploma. The result? Entire cohorts of Florida’s “graduates” cannot properly read, write, or do math, as evidenced by the 2017 report from FSU’s Center for Postsecondary Success that clearly demonstrates 70% of students entering 2 year community colleges, as well as 50% of their peers entering 4 year universities, require remediation in reading, writing or math. If that’s the case, then how could they have sufficiently demonstrated these skills well enough to graduate from high school?
But the human costs and other associated ramifications of HCPS’ “All-In” mentality and subsequent doubling down on these spurious data points has only exacerbated many of the persistent problems happening all over Florida. From the worsening teacher shortage to the manufactured demand for charter schools that sends students and parents fleeing their traditional neighborhood school due to the bad behavior and lack of discipline, our school districts have had their hands tied behind their backs by this so-called “accountability” system that has only wrought suffering. All of this is interconnected in myriad ways and has fostered these big-picture problems.
If we take a deeper dive into the HCPS strategic plan, for instance, this single chart of ABCs effectively demonstrates how these inextricably linked causes are directly responsible for much of why our school district–like virtually any other here in Florida–has hundreds of instructional vacancies. Quite simply, no one wants to teach any more because the profession has become an almost untenable career choice for many reasons.
Attendance is a critical component of the school grade system, so districts are incentivized to keep students coming to school regardless of how badly they behave or perform academically.
Behavior is directly connected to this because administrators are now reluctant to discipline students for two reasons: 1) enough documented behavior incidences would require students to be suspended, thereby reducing said student’s attendance record and potentially jeopardizing the school grade; 2) the conflict of interest created by area superintendents or district administration, which effectively encourages site based administrators to downplay behavior/discipline issues because keeping the numbers low helps with their own evaluations. The downside to this, however, is that these decisions tacitly tell the students they can act out with impunity and that teachers have no authority or autonomy, thereby perpetuating a cycle of leniency reinforcing bad behavior.
Course Performance? What is a C even worth any more? On the majority of our district semester exams a student needs to answer fewer than half the questions in order to earn a “C”. And while we never are shown the scales to the FSA, I’d imagine much of the same dynamic is at play to further perpetuate this false narrative of Florida’s increased public ed performance.
The human costs to these ABC’s are seen in the frustrations of new teachers like Bianca Goolsby who walked away due to the toxicity of her school environment. The costs also affect veteran teachers such as Seth Federman who was bullied by his principal for his “lifestyle” and, like many other teachers and ESPs, struggles with inordinate amounts of stress surrounding the constant testing, push for questionable metrics, worries about VAM, and many other quiet injustices silently suffered by those in the classrooms all across the district and state. And yet still more and more tasks and their associated pressures are heaped upon us while rates of mental health issues such as PTSD continue to climb in the classroom–both for students and teachers–none of which is acknowledged by virtually any of our education leaders.
Ultimately, students and teachers are trapped in a dead-eyed system that continually erodes the creativity of children and autonomy of educators, all while the vast majority of seemingly clueless district leaders across the state smile and applaud the metaphorical burning of Rome that is bent on the destruction of the vestigial remains of humanity found within Florida public education.
We can and must do so much better for those who work with our children every day.
If district administrators and locally elected school board officials don’t start to push back now, to take a stand on behalf our students, teachers, ESPs, and site based school personnel who are living with the ramifications of the A+ plan and/or 90×20, the powers-that-be, especially the Florida Legislature, should expect a whole lot more of this…
Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.
For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.
I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.
But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.
Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?
And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:
Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?
Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?
Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?
Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.
Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?
Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.
As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”
The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.
We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.
With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.
If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.
We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.
And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.
As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.
Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.
In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.
This guest post was written by Nathaniel Sweet, a University of South Florida student majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education. He spent this spring semester working as a legislative intern for the Hillsborough County School Board, and he sent this to me via email. It has been published with his permission, and I hope that you read and share his perspective with others. We will need many, varied voices sharing possible solutions once the difficult discussions about what needs to be addressed in HCPS begin.
I wanted to offer some items for consideration in terms of the discipline problems that the Hillsborough school district has been facing. Obviously, I’m not a classroom teacher, and it’s certainly not my place to judge what teachers decide are the working conditions they need, especially if they work in a Title I school. They’re the professionals, so I’d trust their judgement more than anybody, especially when it comes to day-to-day issues of classroom management.
But I wanted to try to shift the conversation around these issues, because I think the district’s discipline problems go deeper than their handling of referrals. I personally believe that initiatives like SEL, PBIS, and restorative justice are absolutely important reforms, but that the district’s implementation of these programs has been ham-handed and insufficient. Time and time again, it seems like teachers are required to incorporate new and contradictory requirements into the classroom, without a reduction in other obligations and without the necessary groundwork on the district’s part.
A truly effective restorative justice program requires more than a few units of PD and a hard requirement to reduce referrals. It takes an institutional lift, and a comprehensive roll-out across multiple cohorts of students. By the time a student with discipline problems reaches the secondary level, those habits are set pretty firmly. It’d take a lot of time, resources, and focus to get one of them brought into a restorative justice framework, resources that our schools just don’t have. To me, it seems like the most viable way get it right is to work comprehensively and start early. Instead, the district moved under outside pressure to pass the buck onto teachers and principals.
Make no mistake, I think that disproportionate discipline, particularly against low-income students of color, is a nationwide problem and a serious driver of the school-to-prison pipeline. Implicit biases among teachers and administrators likely plays some role. After all, we live in a country where racism and classism are our cultural base temperature–an inescapable artifact of our history. But focusing exclusively on implicit bias shifts the burden onto individual educators, when the biggest factors driving these outcomes are systemic. It’s a direct consequence of bad policy.
Take, for instance, the role of high-stakes testing. It’s obviously in the interest of teachers and students that kids are well-behaved in the classroom. But the pressures of high-stakes tests amp this up to eleven. Suddenly, the teacher’s livelihood (and the school’s very existence) is on the line, and that means maximizing the amount of time devoted to the standards. Whereas additional time could previously be used toward something like SEL, now there’s a very strong incentive to push disruptive students out of class.
This same high-stakes testing culture, alongside defunding at the state level, forces districts into a defensive crouch. Long-term questions fall to the wayside and systemic changes become impossible, because the most important questions become the current year’s test scores and the next year’s budget. Any additional policy changes will be highly reactive instead of proactive, and will likely be under-resourced.
It took civil rights complaints to institute PBIS, and now that the district has made facial changes to keep critics satisfied, they have a strong incentive to wait until the next crisis to do anything different. It would be easy to blame district leaders for this holding pattern, but the truth is that this is the incentive structure our state and federal government have created: anything other than money and testing is a secondary question.
Meanwhile, at the classroom level, it’s apparent that teachers are expected to fulfill completely contradictory goals. We make it difficult to suspend disruptive students, yet we leave in place the incentives to push them out. We add additional requirements for things like SEL, yet we still expect teachers to devote full time to the standards. We want students to be well-behaved and interested in course content, yet we make curricula extremely regimented and boring. We set up an already pointless game of standardized tests, impose requirements that make it harder for public schools to compete, and then punish public schools for the ensuing results.
At the end of this pipeline is an underclass of burnt-out teachers and disenfranchised students. In the presence of high-stakes tests and in the absence of proper funding, at-risk students have nobody to give them the time of day, even as overworked teachers and counselors try their best. From an early age they’ll stare down the barrel of a life marked by poverty and prison, calling into question the value of school altogether. The testing culture and zero-tolerance will condition them from elementary school to view learning as irrelevant and school authorities as hostile.
And yet, because the policies are set, the budgets are thin, and the test scores are essential, the only reform that districts can muster is forcing those kids to sit in a class they don’t want to attend, while making it impossible for the teacher to engage them. We’ve allowed the “education reform” movement to turn students and teachers against each other, when true learning requires them to work together.
The solution is not to go back to pushing kids away. It’s to move forward in bringing kids in. To that point, restorative justice and high-stakes tests simply cannot coexist, period. Restorative justice is about empathy, cooperation, and shared responsibility. High-stakes “accountability” is about exclusion, competition, and blame.
Again, this is just the perspective I’ve developed from my own learning and experience, but I think it offers a pretty comprehensive view of the problem. Certainly teachers, principals, and district leaders have some level of responsibility in these issues, but time and time again their hands are tied by systemic problems, most of which come down from Washington and Tallahassee.
If you enjoyed these insights from Nathaniel Sweet, you can find him often posting in the Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook forum on Facebook. As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
If we asked teachers at some of the most challenging schools in our district, many would share her perspective and know that the events Bianca describe are an all too common occurrence at a number of our schools. And for those who would doubt the veracity of her claims, the data from her peers clearly back up the assertions she makes. But what about at other schools across HCPS?
Numerous anecdotes from fellow teachers at other sites lament how bad behavior has become at their schools. It seems that in the last 6-7 years especially, the words and actions of the most unruly students have only grown steadily worse while the actual repercussions for these students seems to have an inverse correlation. Here’s what the data has to say:
A decade ago, there were 191,965 students enrolled in Hillsborough. Out of those students, 7% (about 1 out of every 13) served an out-of-school suspension, and roughly 16% of all students (close to 1 in 6) were sent to in-school-suspension.
Last year, however, when the district enrolled 211,959 students, there was a slight decrease to OSS, with only 5.7% of students staying home for various reasons; in-school suspension had a drastic decline down to just under 7%.
While all of this data is publicly available here, it would be interesting to dig into these numbers to see the actual length of suspensions. When I first started teaching 15 years ago, fighting was a zero tolerance issue. The aggressor was sent home for 10 days, and the other combatant received 5 days. Now principals have to beg their bosses just to give a kid two days out of school for very serious offenses.
So have students gotten better over the last decade, or are school districts throughout Florida simply not reporting incidences so as to reduce the number of them on paper?
All of this combined ultimately strikes at the heart of the issue–when students receive little to no consequences for their actions, they are emboldened. We now live in an age in which teachers themselves are physically attacked by students, which is an indictment against our entire culture that also shows how little we respect teachers as caring adults who only seek to serve our students in the community.
Bianca shared many details during our conversation yesterday, and they echoed many of my wife’s experiences in Renaissance schools during her first 12 years teaching. In her final year at one particular inner city middle school, she was attacked by a 6th grader who was swinging his backpack at her (she was luckily only hit with straps) while stomping through the classroom breaking things including a favorite picture frame that included our wedding photo on her desk.
He was “talked to” by administrators, but otherwise received no consequence. Destruction of public property and attempting to injure a teacher = “don’t do it again” finger-wagging.
What the district needs to focus on–especially at the secondary level where these issues pose real challenges to the learning environment–is to develop a uniform discipline policy that has immediate consequences that scaffold upward depending on frequency and/or severity. At my school, for instance, our principal still does old fashioned “lock outs”; when students are tardy, he gets on the intercom and asks students who are not in the classroom to come to the elevator. From there, an administrator gives the kids a red pass to notify the teacher as they return to class, and the student in question picks up trash the very same day at lunch. After a couple lunch details, it escalates to ISS. The result? We had 59 total disciplinary incidences last year, whereas many other high schools had well over double that amount.
There’s also an issue of “disappearing referrals,” a seemingly all-too-common occurrence in certain challenging environments. Whether the principals at these schools perceive pressure from downtown or if they have been actively given orders to delete discipline referrals from the system is unknown. But many teachers have reported this practice of either acknowledging the referral way too late so that the consequence is completely decoupled from the action, by never doing anything with them at all, or, in some cases, having these deleted from the system altogether.
This has become a massive issue that needs to be rectified. Rather than “gaslighting” whistleblowers such as Bianca Goolsby, we need to all work together to devise a plan that is fair to all parties involved. While there was clearly a need years ago to adjust disciplinary measures due to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Hispanics being suspended, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we are bordering on sheer pandemonium at some schools. All students need to be in school, and trying to keep kids in school by suspending them less is noble but clearly has had unintended consequences.
We need to address this issue rather than hide from it. The unruly behavior at some of the most challenging schools is certainly hastening the flight to charters in our area, and more parents will probably avail themselves of the new scholarships to attend private schools if they can. Why? Because bad behavior is still not tolerated in these places, and students who disrupt the learning or potentially harm others are kicked out altogether. The sooner we begin open and honest conversations involving the entire community for how we can serve Jennings or any struggling school in Hillsborough, the better it will be for everyone affected by these negative behaviors.
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