Will The Next Education Secretary Be The King of School Suspensions?

Jeff Bryant

A lot of the commentary following the announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that he would be leaving his post at the end of the year was devoted to praising his apparent devotion to children.

An extensive profile of Duncan and his tenure in Politico, for instance, quoted a number of “Duncan’s loyalists … gushing about Duncan’s constant mantra in policy meetings: What’s the right thing for kids.” Another especially effusive send-off of the Secretary lauded him for his “fundamental, almost-overwhelming commitment to children.” The author concluded, “Arne … You were always too good for us.”

All that adulation prompted Frederick Hess to rant, “It’s nice that Duncan cares. I’m perfectly happy to concede that he wants to do to the right thing. But I don’t think that makes him unique, and I don’t actually think he cares a lot more than anyone else.”

Hess, the top education policy honcho at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, is not a person I frequently agree with, but he is right on when he says, “The danger with becoming convinced of one’s unique goodness is that it becomes only natural to dismiss those who disagree as insufficiently compassionate and concerned. In that way, self-righteousness morphs into close-mindedness, insularity, and disdain for those who might not see things the same way.”

Nevertheless, the “person who cares the most” narrative of Duncan has been cast in sterling silver and wrapped with bows by Beltway operatives, so now it’s up to all us “outsiders” to write more nuanced, analytical commentary about the real effect of the Duncan tenure on public education, long-term.

Now enter John King, the interim secretary likely to serve until the end of the Obama administration, and the whole story-telling machine starts spinning anew. This time, the new leader of the federal government’s education policy is being cast as “a man driven by what might have been had he not found refuge in public schools,” according to education reporters at The Washington Post.

For sure, King has a compelling life story: an orphan at age 12 who moved from relative to relative and found his local school to be “the safest, most stable and most nurturing place he knew.” With a caring public school as his launching pad, King went on to succeed in Ivy League universities and eventually become state commissioner of New York public schools. King certainly deserves respect and admiration for traversing such a difficult journey.

But at what point do we separate personal narrative from policy agenda?

After being led by the “cares the most for kids” Secretary Duncan, do we simply transition, without question, to a leader who “has built his career on the conviction that all children should have access to the kind of schools, and the kind of teachers, that he credits with saving his life?”

Do we let the stories continue to write themselves?

To be fair, the Post reporters point out how “polarizing” King was as state leader of public schools in New York. They mention his controversial implementation of the new Common Core Standards in 2013. They report how teachers complained about not having the training or materials to teach to the new standards, and how parents rebelled against the new pressures being put on their children and the huge increases in test prep they were seeing heaped on their kids.

But of course those sorts of policy disputes can be justified as necessary when someone “who cares most about kids” meets others who … don’t?

“Where critics see a zealot who refuses to listen,” the reporters write, “his supporters see a champion for children, a person willing to withstand a pummeling in the public square to do what he thinks is right.”

Left mostly unexplored, however, is an important difference in the history Arne Duncan carries around with him compared to the one John King totes.

With Duncan we have a leader who makes claims about doing “what’s right” for kids, but who actually never directly oversaw children in an organized education setting for a substantial amount of time. Because Duncan was never an educator – never ran a school, never taught in a classroom – there isn’t really any evidence of just how “good” Duncan is when he has direct control of children other than his own.

That’s not true for King, who has a track record of teaching in schools, and eventually founding and leading a school and overseeing a chain of charter schools. With King, there is ample evidence of how he treats children when he has direct control of them. And it’s not altogether a pretty sight to behold.

The King Of No Excuse

In reporting King’s leadership of Roxbury Prep, a charter school he co-founded in Boston, the Post reporters provide a hint of what a school is like when King is in charge.

As the reporters note, the school was famous for having students “who were overwhelmingly low-income and minority” score high on state tests. This achievement brought accolades to King and his school and prompted visits by education thought leaders who wanted to observe just how the magic occurred.

One of those visitors, the article notes, was Pedro Noguera, “an urban education expert who directs the Metropolitan Center at New York University.” In recalling his visit, the article quotes him:

I walked through that school and saw kids walking in silence, having lunch in silence … I told John I’d never seen middle-class white children treated that way. And he said, ‘This is the model that works for our kids.’ I asked him, ‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders, or followers? Because leaders get to walk and talk in the hallways.’

From Noguera’s detailed recollection, we get a glimpse into a much bigger story of the kinds of schools John King ran. From his storied success at Roxbury Prep, King went on to help found and lead a chain of charter schools designed to replicate what his first school in Boston achieved.

The Uncommon Schools network King helped found and lead quickly became an exemplar of what is commonly called a “no-excuse” philosophy of education and pedagogical practice. The origin of this philosophy is most often attributed to a chain of charter schools called KIPP, which has built a reputation for generating high test scores from populations of students who most often struggle to do well on standardized tests.

While there doesn’t appear to be a formal definition of this educational approach, there is a common set of principles characterizing the no-excuse practice, which include: high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, a strict disciplinary code, longer school hours and sometimes extra days, a stronger emphasis on math and reading (subjects addressed by standardized testing), and a monolithic school culture stressing particular values for all students to uphold.

Numerous critics of this approach to schooling accuse these schools of attempting to close the achievement gap between struggling low-income kids and their more well-off peers by imposing a form of behavior modification. “A growing array of critics,” notes a recent article in The Hechinger Report, “is concerned that the no-excuses approach more effectively contributes to … a flagrant form of two-tiered education and a rise in racially skewed suspension and expulsion rates for low-level misbehavior.”

While schools following the no-excuse model can vary in terms of how they implement this approach and what sorts of outcomes they produce, the version of no-excuse King and his schools practice tends to lead to at least one disturbing outcome.

“King of School Suspensions”

One outcome Uncommon Schools is proudest of, for sure, is the network’s overall results on standardized tests. How does Uncommon Schools do it?

Uncommon Schools, like many no-excuse charter chains, has often been accused of having student attrition rates that exceed the rates of traditional public schools. The motivation for increasing student attrition in a school is simple: Want higher test scores? Encourage – by overly strict discipline, repeated academic failure, grade retention, or negative “counseling” – students who struggle the most to leave.

Research studies produced by the charter industry itself tend to find attrition rates at charters vary little from those of comparable public schools. However, it should be noted that when students leave a public school, for whatever reasons, they almost always rotate back into another public school, unless they drop out, while students leaving charter schools more often than not end up in public schools.

Because charter schools don’t have to “back fill” their classrooms, meaning seats that are vacated in the middle of the year can remain empty, they can benefit from smaller class sizes and grade cohorts while public schools get more and more crowded.

Also, numerous anecdotes of no-excuse charter schools with abnormally high attrition rates – including examples from some schools in the Uncommon Schools chain – continue to provoke questions about charter school attrition rates. So let’s just say the issue of high student attrition rates in charter schools is far from settled.

But what is completely clear is that when John King’s Uncommon Schools are the subject, there is a particular kind of student attrition prevalent in those schools.

As New Jersey-based schoolteacher and blogger Mark Weber explains, one significant characteristic of a King-led school is extraordinary high student suspension rates. Weber finds the school King helped start, “not only has the second highest suspension rate in greater Boston; it’s the second largest in the state. The only school with a higher suspension rate is City On Hill,” also a school where King used to teach.

According to data Weber shares, these schools have suspension rates that near 50 percent, while most public schools in his analysis have suspension rates that are far lower, well under 10 percent.

Weber believes these high suspension rates can be directly attributed to King because, “King, the New York Times wrote in 2011, was instrumental in designing the charter school’s curriculum and disciplinary structure – including required school uniforms and rules against talking in the hallways.”

Further, Weber finds, as King’s influence extended beyond Roxbury to the network of Uncommon Schools he helped create, the tendencies toward high student suspension rates followed him.

In Brooklyn, Weber finds Uncommon charters with suspension rates that exceed 30 percent, well above rates in public schools in the low single digits. Elsewhere in New York, Uncommon charters have suspension rates of 15 and 20 percent while the public schools in those districts have rates that are low single digit. The same is true in New Jersey.

“Uncommon Schools,” Weber concludes, “has some of the highest student suspension rates compared to its neighboring schools in three different states.”

To dismiss any argument that these over-the-top suspension rates are a recent anomaly, and not attributed to King’s leadership since he is no longer at the helm, Weber updates his analysis to show these high suspension rates bear out throughout the history of these schools.

What’s Wrong With School Suspensions?

The high student suspension rates in the schools King helped create and preside over are indeed a cause for concern.

First, as Weber points out, they violate the standards of the very Department of Education John King is now going to lead. A “School Climate and Discipline” page on the Department’s website states several reasons for not suspending students, saying they don’t work, they have negative consequences to the student and the school climate, and there are better alternatives.

In a more in-depth analysis, the Opportunity to Learn campaign [disclosure: a partner of the Education Opportunity Network] finds research from Texas showing students who have been suspended repeatedly “were more likely to become involved in the juvenile-justice system, be retained a grade, and drop out of high school.”

OTL also cites research conducted by a Baltimore-based group finding, “Suspensions, especially for minor rule infractions, unnecessarily create more absences, more time out of the classroom, more chances that students will fall further behind.”

OTL concludes, “Too many absences drag down student achievement and, by 6th grade, begin to predict the likelihood that a student will eventually drop out of school. … Typically, the students missing school to suspension are the students who can least afford to miss valuable learning experiences. They need more time in school, not less.”

What Will King Do?

We all know there are things to like about John King.

One bit of news about him that is particularly heartening is that in his turn as state commissioner he “used federal money to encourage schools to create more diverse student populations,” according to a report in The Washington Post. Pushing schools toward more racial integration is by all accounts a worthwhile goal.

Yet there is a difference between taking a principled stand you’ve taken before and breaking from repeated practices from your past.

On the issue of enforcing federal guidelines on student suspensions, it will be interesting to see how King will rule. But what we certainly don’t need are any more media-created narratives that because we think we know where King’s heart is, we can assume anything about where his head is.

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