The soft bigotry of school discipline reform

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Simon Whitehead

Editor’s note: This is a lightly edited version of prepared remarks that Mr. Whitehead delivered to senior U.S. Department of Education officials at Friday morning’s listening session concerning the agency’s school discipline guidance. Mr. Whitehead is a retired high school teacher with thirty-seven years of teaching experience, the last twenty-five years of which were in Minneapolis.

I am here today because I am very worried about the direction some of our urban and suburban schools are taking.

Over the past four to five years, there have been strong expectations to discipline students differently depending on their race. We were told that too many students of color were being suspended and this looked bad, especially in the case of African American boys. This was definitely the case in Minneapolis.

However well-intended, this policy actually disrespects a whole class of students by lowering the expectations for their behavior, their work ethic, and inevitably their academic progress. When students walk though my classroom door, I have high expectations for them—no matter what they look like.

Another great area of concern is that students are now increasingly emboldened to get together and collaborate to “get teachers in trouble.” Those teachers can lose their jobs and their entire careers. The teachers who tend to be targets are those who have a more traditional way of teaching. By this I mean holding all students to high expectations—such as punctuality, respectful behavior, teamwork, good work ethic, following school rules, politeness, meeting deadlines—and providing consequences for not reaching those high standards.

This has led, in my opinion, to a generation of teachers who are “walking on eggshells,” trying very hard to not say anything or do anything that might remotely get them reported. I believe that many teachers now turn a blind eye to school policies not popular with students: they inflate grades, ignore dress codes violations, don’t give deadlines for handing work in, and put up with bad behavior that would previously had prompted disciplinary action. It is a culmination of these “little expectations” that has led to an erosion of the overall school climate of academic rigor, as well as an erosion of student and staff safety. In addition, if there’s a student exhibiting significantly bad behavior, many teachers feel helpless because they know that a behavior referral will be fruitless; assistant principals will return that student to the same classroom that day or the next day. Order in the classroom deteriorates, and learning suffers.

When you have given twenty-five years to teaching city kids, it hurts to be called a racist, as I have been many times. It’s upsetting to be verbally abused on a daily or even hourly basis, and in some cases even physically abused.

What other profession has to tolerate this?

This is a key reason why we are losing great teachers.

I like to think I ran a pretty tight ship. I like to think that we got a lot of learning done in fifty minutes. I would teach up to two hundred students a day. I was the head varsity coach of two sports in my school. I was in the hallways every day, passing time, keeping order and greeting students. But under the current conditions, I cannot and will not teach any longer in Minneapolis.  

African American students will never reach their full potential when they are getting conflicting messages from radical activists who tell them they are, and will be, victims of discrimination, who promote the ideology of white privilege (code for “you have no chance”), and who get them all riled up and angry in school so that they’re protesting at every opportunity. It is tough to learn when you are angry.

These students need to hear the same strong, uplifting, and positive message from teachers, parents, counselors, principals, and district administrators that they can achieve success with hard work, dedication, and determination. You have no idea how heartwarming and rewarding it is for teachers to see highly successful students of color move on to college or their chosen career. The most successful programs in our school are the International Baccalaureate program, Advancement Via Individual Determination, and our post-secondary education programs because they all are rigorous and demand accountability on behalf of students.

That’s what we need more of in our schools—and if we had it, I might still be teaching today.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.