African-American boys face a peculiar dilemma in Chicago’s public schools: how to get a solid education when, more than any other group of students, they are singled out for harsh punishments and sent packing for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. Some are expelled—even in elementary school—for a year or longer. Many folks assume that these punishments are deserved. Isn’t it true, they ask, that black male students are more likely to behave in ways that warrant such sanctions?
This wrong-minded logic is endemic in today’s society, where negative stereotypes of black males are pervasive. While it is true that black males can be found in the universe of students who behave badly at school, it is not at all correct to presume that all black males who are suspended or expelled from school deserve what they got.
The numbers are striking: Black males comprise 23 percent of the CPS student population but amount to 44 percent of those who are suspended, and 61 percent of those who are expelled. Black boys are the only group of CPS students whose suspension rates are higher in elementary school than in high school.
Code of conduct
CPS policy stipulates the following mitigating factors be taken into account when disciplining students:
- age, health, maturity, and academic placement
- prior conduct
- parent/guardian cooperation and/or involvement
- willingness to make restitution
- seriousness of the offense
- willingness to enroll in a student assistance program
Suspension rates are so high in Chicago, one researcher speculates that federal civil rights officials may see reason to investigate. “Something is wrong in a school district that suspends half or a quarter of one group of students,” says researcher Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Berkeley.
Yet schools have the power to do something about this disparity. Just a few years ago, two out of every three black male students at Dyett High School got suspended. The situation was similar at Ryerson Elementary, where until recently, black boys were suspended at three times the district average. Principals at both schools reversed the trend once they zeroed in on the problem and embraced alternative discipline and student motivation strategies that didn’t result in boys missing classes. Rather than blaming students, these educators took it upon themselves to look for ways to address behavior issues that ensured students’ academic needs were factored in.
Here’s what’s at stake: More African-American male students drop out of CPS (55 percent) than graduate (40 percent). Research shows, unequivocally, that students who are absent perform poorly, and that suspensions put students at risk for dropping out.
When it comes to punishing black male students, the district’s scales of justice tilt toward discrimination. It’s time for CPS to publicly recognize that something is wrong, and for CEO Ron Huberman to take it upon himself to address, districtwide, the paradox of black male punishment and performance.
I have been privileged over the past 12 years to observe and cover Chicago Public Schools as an education journalist and editor. When I began working for Catalyst, an academic generation was entering kindergarten classes across the city. It was the fall of 1996, just a year after Mayor Daley and then-CEO Paul Vallas took the reins, at the beginning of a tug-of-war between local and central control of schools.
So much has happened since then, some of it unimaginable in the late 1990s. Who would have believed it back then if someone had said in just over 10 years, Chicago would produce the first black U.S. President and would see its schools CEO rise to Secretary of Education? Today, Chicago has charter schools and merit pay and Preschool for All and college coaches and knowledge, based in research, about where and how to target resources to raise graduation rates and keep students from dropping out.
Those kindergartners who started school the same year I joined Catalyst graduated this month—or at least the ones who survived the system and earned enough credits to do so. At the current rate, that would be just over half of them, too low a figure to be considered a rousing success. Besides high schools, the other tough nut left uncracked since I’ve been in this field is school funding reform. In this tough economic climate, progress on this front is beyond the horizon, unless the Chicago Urban League’s lawsuit breaks through. (I’m rooting that it will.)
With the changes that Huberman promises to bring, I’m torn about leaving Catalyst at such a crucial juncture. But some offers are too good to resist, and the honor of my being named a Knight Fellow at Stanford University is one of them.
So, although I’m signing off and moving on, I will remain fascinated by and connected to what’s happening in public schools here, and with education policy across the country. Northern California isn’t that far away, and I’m looking forward to continuing the dialogue in the emerging media landscape.