At Minneapolis Public Schools, suspensions are down by 47 percent from last year (in the 2014-15 school year to late April, compared with a year earlier), and out-of-school removals are down by 32 percent. But in the Star Tribune’s article on MPS suspensions May 24 (“Minneapolis school suspensions soar”), this positive trend was all but ignored.
The downward trend in suspensions and removals means MPS students who are most at risk of dropping out of school are spending more time in class learning. This is a direct result of MPS’ concerted effort over the past few years to address student behavior through positive and proactive measures rather than punitive ones. As educators, it is our duty to better understand and redirect disruptive student behavior and not merely react.
As the MPS behavior standards policy states, “Effective discipline is educational, not punitive. Effective discipline includes building relationships, repair of harm and restoring relationships and restorative practices to reengage students in their learning community.” I wholeheartedly agree.
The 2015 “spike” in suspension data referenced in the article is from January to the end of April. Despite this apparent increase, students have missed 4,929 fewer days of instruction in this school year, compared with the same point a year ago, as a result of the district’s new behavior standard efforts.
During the Star Tribune’s interviews with MPS research, evaluation and assessment staff, it was clearly explained that the possible increase is inconclusive given that it is preliminary data and anomalous compared to past years. Indeed, the 2014-15 data may be more reflective of MPS’ new policy on behavior that is attempting to affect a yearly rate rather than a point in time.
Certainly, if this increase in suspensions holds true, we will want to look closely at what exactly led to it. As is the case with any information gathering, the data won’t be complete until the full cycle of reporting is closed, in this case, late June. Once the data is verified, MPS staff will be able to analyze whether this possible increase will hold true, and can fully assess and address the root causes of that uptick.
Our duty at MPS is to teach all students and to meet each student’s individual needs so they can be in class every day ready to learn. Is this easy? Absolutely not. Can and should MPS do more to meet these needs? Absolutely. And that is why we continue to be committed to providing our principals and teachers with the professional development, skills and support they need to do this challenging but critical work.
Over the past year we’ve engaged school leaders and their behavior standards teams through extensive training. This summer we will continue that work in all-day sessions to take a close look at how we can improve our support to schools so they can successfully manage and redirect student behavior.
It should not go unnoticed that initiatives such as Gov. Mark Dayton’s fight to establish universal education for 4-year-olds is a critical element of this issue. MPS’ own program for 4-year-olds, High Five, has been shown to be a resounding success in giving students with the greatest needs the boost early in life they need to perform at the level of their more affluent peers. It is clear that if we could expand High Five, the ripple effect in accelerating academic achievement of all students would be profound.
It is disconcerting that the Star Tribune ignored an opportunity to dig deep into a widespread reality in urban education involving a complex issue that touches on poverty, health disparities, institutional racism and cultural attitudes. MPS students, families and teachers deserve better.
Michael Goar is interim superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.