Closing the Discipline-to-Dropout Pipeline

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How do discipline practices correlate with the number of students who drop out?

A somewhat recent report from the Rennie Center (Act Out, Get Out?) uses evidence from Massachusetts to make the case for reforming excessive discipline referrals for nonviolent offenses like truancy and tardiness. Last year (2009), 8,600 high school students dropped out of Massachusetts public schools. The report notes that fully understanding the role of discipline is an essential step in tackling the problem of why some Massachusetts students are not staying in school.

The Rennie Center report provides evidence that disciplinary policies can exacerbate equity gaps; ASCD author Rick Curwin‘s work addresses both behavior and motivation and gives teachers the tools to get in front of potential discipline problems.

Here’s Curwin’s response to the Act Out, Get Out? report:

Many practitioners define discipline as punishing bad behavior, rewarding good behavior, and deterring future unacceptable choices. This comprehensive report rebukes that simplistic definition and the strategies associated with it. I define discipline as teaching students how to behave responsibly, make good choices, and be decent human beings. It is as important and part of the job as any content or curriculum.

The key to effective discipline is not directly stated in the report, but it is strongly implied and easily be drawn from the conclusions: All students, regardless of their behavior, need to feel welcomed and a sense of belonging within the school. We cannot influence students who are not there, we cannot influence students who don’t care, and we must be more stubborn at not giving up than they are at making us want to give up.

It is not a coincidence that punishments work best on the students who need them the least. Good students (those that follow rules) rarely receive them, have learned social skills at home, and feel highly regarded in school. It is tragic, however, to think that punishment creates good kids. It simply harms “good kids” less. If one of these top students receives enough punishment, they too will face the consequences pointed out in the Rennie Center report.

I firmly believe that all policy decision makers and teachers should base discipline policy and practice on the information gleaned from reports like this, and they should make school a place that helps the worst-behaving students as well as the best. They need us, and we need to reach them, as a moral and social imperative.

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