Restorative Justice Boosts Self-Awareness, Builds Community, and Builds Skills Needed in a Democracy
This Sunday’s NYTimes will feature an article by Susan Dominus on how the use of restorative justice in an urban high school in NYC has dramatically lowered the suspension rates. Ms. Dominus’ article vividly describes the daunting challenges an administrator faces when trying to replace the criminal justice model of discipline with a restorative justice model. Teachers and deans who are accustomed to swift and automatic consequences for specific forms of misconduct are thrown when they are expected to deal with small offenses on their own and expected to help students learn to manage their own conduct. After reading the description of how the Principal at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District implemented restorative justice model over a period of years, Ms. Santos noted that:
“While studies have shown that restorative practices curb suspensions, research on their influence on test scores and grades is inconclusive.”
It’s a sad reality that schools are assessed based on standardized test scores and students progress is measured by grades— because both are based on the premise that time is fixed and performance is variable. Moreover, test scores and grades measure what is easy to measure but ultimately not that important. Restorative justice, as this article shows, tackles the toughest and most important issues. If we want to graduate students who are ready to thrive in a community, who are self-actualized learners, who are self-aware, who understand the skills needed to function in a democracy, we need to ignore their standardized tests and change our thinking about grades. We need to show them the same patience in the mastery of academics as restorative justice affords them in the management of their emotions. If we continue to focus on seemingly objective and precise metrics like standardized tests and grades we will continue ignoring the emotional well-being of children. Given our obsession with tests and grades Is it any surprise that we are reading countless articles about disaffected and disengaged young adults?
Ms. Dominus illustrates the difficulty of changing the dominant paradigm of school discipline and, in so doing, illustrates how difficult it is to change the dominant thinking about test-based accountability. Her article is aptly titled “An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High School Suspensions”. What Ms. Dominus fails to acknowledge is that our current practice with school discipline is IN-effective but equally exhausting. As is our practice in batching students in age based cohorts and expecting them to progress in lockstep.
The quote that serves as the title of this post comes from a Truthout article by Mike Ludwig titled “After Hundreds of School Closures, Black Families are Still Waiting for Justice”. In the article Mr. Ludwig describes the “reform” cycle whereby schools in poor urban neighborhoods are closed because they were deemed to be “failing” based on “...standards set by bureaucrats and lawmakers miles away”. But some parents are getting wise to what is happening in their neighborhoods and in their cities.
In cities across the country, hundreds of schools have shut down under so-called “reform” policies handed down by the Bush and Obama administrations, according to Journey for Justice. State and local officials use enrollment numbers, high-stakes testing scores and other metrics attached to state and federal funding incentives to identify and shut down schools considered to be “failing,” robbing neighborhoods of essential public resources and disrupting students’ academic life.
“We don’t believe that we have failing schools,” (Chicago activist Jitu) Brown told Truthout. “We think that’s a political statement. We’ve been failed.”
Brown says that taxpaying parents in Black neighborhoods deserve better-funded schools with more resources for learning, but the inequities in Chicago are sitting in plain sight. For example, schools in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods enjoy teacher’s aides in every classroom and librarians on staff at all times, while schools in lower-income neighborhoods of color do not.
Instead of providing more money for schools serving poor children, districts are consolidating failing schools or turning over their operation to private for-profit organizations. In both cases the students see no marked improvement in their performance and the neighborhoods where the schools close are disrupted. Jitu Brown, who is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, an organization comprised of grassroots civil rights groups in 23 cities, is leading the fight to replace these kinds of policies that shut down schools and replace them with community-based solutions. But the fight is arduous, complicated, and time consuming. At this juncture the Department of Education is examining his organization’s complaints to see if Federal Laws have been violated. But the concluding paragraphs of Ludwig’s article offer a dispiriting conclusion:
Brown said he is grateful that the federal authorities agreed to investigate educational discrimination in New Orleans and Chicago, but now that two years have passed, he’s starting to doubt that federal civil rights officials are the “crusaders for justice” that he once hoped they would be.
“The wheels of justice, they are rusted,” Brown said. “And they don’t turn.”
The wheels of reform, however, oiled by the donations of billionaires, are gliding smoothly as privatized charters invade the neighborhoods and push public schools out of the picture altogether.
Retired English professor TJRay wrote an op ed piece for the Oxford (MS) Eagle decrying the recent action of the legislature and State Board in Mississippi, actions that follow the ALEC inspired “reform” playbook to a “T”. Mr. Ray’s essay describes how the legislature passed a bill that makes it possible for public schools to be closed and replaced with charter schools if they are graded lower than a “B”. And now, only weeks later, the State Board– appointed by the same political party that is in the legislature– is ready to enact a new rating system that limits the number of schools that can receive an “A” rating and mandates a minimum number of schools that must receive an “F” rating.
As Mr. Ray notes:
The object (of the bill that passed) was not to improve the public schools in question; it was to feather the nests of the corporations and groups that set up charter schools. An interesting inquiry might pose the question: How many names on those corporate charters match names on generous campaign donors? Well, obviously they’re getting their payback for putting the folks back where they can wreak havoc in the state.
And Mr. Ray also questions the rationale for the “reform” movement in Mississippi offered by the State’s Commissioner of Higher Education:
The Commissioner of Higher Education said that the foundation of education that students will need to succeed in universities is not being provided. One response might simply be that every young person doesn’t need to succeed at a university, may not even be suited to academics at all.
The oligarchs manufactured need to prepare all students for college leads to artificially high standards which leads to artificially difficult tests which leads to high failure rates in public schools which leads to the need to close those schools and replace them with privatized schools run by the oligarchs. And to make sure this machinery is well-oiled the oligarchs help elect politicians who support this “system” that keeps them enriched and a large number of children on a path to “failure”…. or at least on a path to work for lower wages.
Last Sunday the NYTimes op ed writer David Kirp’s essay detailed the positive impact of “community schools”, a reform initiative advocated by NYC Mayor de Blasio instead of the market-based “reform” movement advocated by his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg. What is a community school? Kirp offers this description:
A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships with local organizations intended to deliver health, social and recreational supports for students and their families. The idea of a school that serves as a neighborhood hub holds widespread appeal, and 150 school districts, including Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Okla., and Lincoln, Neb., have bought into the idea.
While a “community school” costs roughly $800 annually, an analysis by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Columbia indicates that every dollar spent to provide community schools “…generates a return of at least $3”. Their analysis indicates that:
“Providing the program to 100 students over six years would cost society $457,000 but yield $1,385,000 in social benefits” — higher incomes, lower incarceration rates, better health and less reliance on welfare.
Kira’s article is titled “To Teach a Child to Read, First Give Him Glasses”, and he notes early in the article that poverty stricken parents often cannot afford glasses but schools educating a vision impaired student are nevertheless held accountable for that child’s progress. Kirp offers this anecdote as an example:
“You wouldn’t think it’s acceptable to send a child to school without having glasses or without dental care, but it’s O.K. for that child to take a reading or math test,” Mark Gaither, the principal of Wolfe Street Academy, a justly renowned community school in Baltimore, told Maryland lawmakers. “But that’s the situation poor parents face.”
As Mr. Kirp notes, community schools are designed “…to deliver the emotional support that battle-scarred children badly need — recruiting a squadron of social workers, training teachers to counsel students and teaching older students how to mentor their younger classmates.” And when schools have the wherewithal to provide social and emotional support, students can thrive. He writes: “After-school and summer programs not only keep poor kids off the streets, but they also give them the academic leg up and the array of opportunities that better-off families can afford to buy.”
There is one big problem with community schools: achieving the kinds of test score improvements used as a metric for success often takes time and persistence.
Results-hungry policy makers expect test scores to rise overnight, but getting students engaged in their own education must come first. A recent evaluation of Baltimore’s community schools concluded that the schools whose students did best academically were those in the program longest.
As noted in an earlier blog post, Mayor de Blasio ultimately needs to satisfy those “results hungry policy makers” who never got the results they anticipated when they used the test-and-punish methods for over a decade but somehow believe the mayor’s approach should be deemed a failure after only two years in place. Chirps’ concluding paragraph indicates that he “gets it”:
New York’s experiment is drawing attention among educators nationwide. If the venture succeeds, other cities may follow suit, but if fails, the community schools movement will take a hit. The impressive evaluations will recede in significance, and critics will dismiss the strategy as just another failed fad. Fingers crossed, then, that the city gives the experiment enough time before rushing to judgment.
From my perspective, I’m keeping fingers crossed that the public recognizes that a return to the test-and-punish model is bankrupt…