Assessing Tracking, Suspension, and Expulsion

Schools are designed to promote student achievement and healthy development and, for the most part, are successful in creating an environment that facilitates these. Schools play an essential part in educating, socializing, and otherwise preparing children for their roles as adults in an ever-changing world. Students’ commitment to school and learning is known to contribute to their academic success and to operate as protective factors against many problem behaviors. Some schools are seriously handicapped in their ability to successfully encourage bonds to school and learning. It is important to remember that schools operate in a complex social context characterized in many instances by limited resources. Gottfredson (1997:5-1) has noted:

By far the strongest correlates of school disorder are characteristics of the population and community contexts in which schools are located. Schools in urban, poor, disorganized communities experience more disorder than other schools. Research has also demonstrated that the human resources needed to implement and sustain school improvement efforts—leadership, teacher morale, teacher mastery, school climate, and resources—are found less often in urban rather than in other schools.

Research has identified features of schools that undermine learning and encourage delinquency. For example, the availability of drugs, alcohol, or weapons, weak or inattentive school leadership, and poor administration of discipline (i.e., unclear rules and/or inconsistent enforcement of



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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop Assessing Tracking, Suspension, and Expulsion Schools are designed to promote student achievement and healthy development and, for the most part, are successful in creating an environment that facilitates these. Schools play an essential part in educating, socializing, and otherwise preparing children for their roles as adults in an ever-changing world. Students’ commitment to school and learning is known to contribute to their academic success and to operate as protective factors against many problem behaviors. Some schools are seriously handicapped in their ability to successfully encourage bonds to school and learning. It is important to remember that schools operate in a complex social context characterized in many instances by limited resources. Gottfredson (1997:5-1) has noted: By far the strongest correlates of school disorder are characteristics of the population and community contexts in which schools are located. Schools in urban, poor, disorganized communities experience more disorder than other schools. Research has also demonstrated that the human resources needed to implement and sustain school improvement efforts—leadership, teacher morale, teacher mastery, school climate, and resources—are found less often in urban rather than in other schools. Research has identified features of schools that undermine learning and encourage delinquency. For example, the availability of drugs, alcohol, or weapons, weak or inattentive school leadership, and poor administration of discipline (i.e., unclear rules and/or inconsistent enforcement of

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop rules) (Gottfredson, 1997) are all factors that correlate with school disorder and a school’s inability to cope with and solve problems. Workshop participants were also concerned that there are school policies and practices, over which school administrators exercise a degree of control, that weaken students’ commitment to school and learning and contribute to academic failure. Providing a learning environment for those who are well behaved is often posed as requiring cutting off the education of those who are not. Current practice often involves removing misbehaving children from the classroom or even the school. Exploring the history of the practice, Maynard Reynolds (1994:134) of the University of Minnesota, has explained: Today, many children showing behavior problems are displaced from regular classes and schools into special programs. Unfortunately, the special programs may serve only a relief or arresting function. That is, they make regular classes more orderly because disturbing children have been removed. But too many of the students given the special placements show little improvement in the abilities required to reenter the ordinary classes of the schools or to thrive in other institutions of the community. Workshop participants discussed school policies that might contribute to school failure, including tracking and school expulsion. Concern was expressed that school policies in these areas stigmatize students by separating them from their peers and disrupting the educational process. School practices concerning student dropouts were also highlighted by workshop participants as an area in which schools could improve the academic performance of their students by reforming school policy. Social inequality was a recurrent theme in several workshop presentations. There was wide agreement that more attention should be paid to the ways in which social inequality—including racism, sexism, and classism —is reflected in school structure, policies, and practices. Participants underscored how important it is to begin to understand the potentially unique developmental experiences and stressors of racial minorities, females, and economically poor students. Workshop participants stressed the importance of examining school polices for their effects on students’ commitment to school and learning. Generally, commitment to school refers to students’ participation in school activities, class attendance, completion of homework, and the recognition that there are negative consequences for not fulfilling school expectations.

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop TRACKING Students’ bonds to school are an important element of the debate on tracking. Tracking is most commonly defined as the placement of students in a curricular program based on their perceived abilities. This differs from the situation 20 years ago, when tracks were oriented toward academic, vocational, and business goals. Methods of tracking vary by school. To many educators, tracking has a negative connotation, and many schools insist that they do not track students. What is more common today is for students to be grouped course by course, a form of de facto tracking. Ethnographic research conducted in the United States and England indicates that, when students are tracked, their attitudes and behavior become polarized over time (Berends, 1995). Attitudes and behavior are shaped by the way tracking structures children’s activities and relationships to other students. Ethnographers have observed that different tracks are associated with contrasting subcultures that have well-defined norms and expectations. For example, students placed in high tracks accept the normative culture of the school, while students placed in low tracks create their own alternative oppositional culture (Berends, 1995). In this way, polarization produces and reinforces stigma and feelings of inequality among students. Tracking can wear away positive attitudes toward school. Researchers refer to this process as “downward track mobility.” Students in lower or nonacademic tracks become less and less committed and involved in school over time. These students may develop a fatalistic culture and believe that the school is not responsive to their needs. They are likely to merely tolerate school and to believe that it has nothing useful to offer them. While there is not much quantitative research on tracking and social bonds to school, available studies have found a correlation between tracking and behavioral problems, including absenteeism, delinquency, expulsions, and dropping out (Berends, 1995). Studies have demonstrated little association, however, between tracking and delinquency, once prior delinquency has been controlled (Wiatrowski et al., 1982). It is important to point out that research on the effects of tracking must account for preexisting differences in tracked students. This difficulty should not be underestimated. Mark Berends, of the RAND Corporation, presented his research on the effects of tracking on students’ commitment to school. He examined data from the High School and Beyond Survey, a nationally representative, longitudinal dataset of approximately 1,000 schools and over 25,000 students, originally collected in the 1980s. In the reanalysis of these data, 10th and 12th grade students in general and vocational tracks were com-

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop pared with students in academic tracks, controlling for background characteristics, test scores, and prior orientation toward school (Berends, 1995). Berends found that students in the general and vocational tracks were more likely than students in the academic tracks to drop out of school between 10th and 12th grade, to have lower long-term educational expectations (i.e., plans for attending college), to have more disciplinary problems, and to be less engaged in school generally. While the differences were small, he suggested that they might operate cumulatively over students’ academic careers so that students become increasingly disadvantaged over time. Berends argued that these findings suggest that separating students, whether through tracking or other mechanisms, can have negative consequences for them in terms of academic achievement and commitment to school. Negative effects from tracking are not inevitable. According to Berends, whether grouping has a negative impact on students’ attitudes and behavior is somewhat dependent on how students are grouped, for what purpose, and whether there are scheduled follow-up assessments that move students when progress has been made. Tracking decisions must also be examined in light of the developmental differences between students in various age groups. The research evidence is clear that ability grouping across grades in the early elementary grades is beneficial for teaching reading (Slavin, 1987). In contrast, tracking for all academic subjects in middle school and high school can have negative consequences for students in low tracks without improving the performance of those in high and average tracks (Slavin, 1990). Students are grouped for instructional purposes in many different ways, of which tracking is just one. Workshop participants agreed that the negative stigmatizing effects of school tracking must be countered by flexible school policies and practices. These policies and practices must reassess track assignments, balance the needs for academic achievement (measured at the school level by students ’ performance on standardized tests) with a child’s own feelings of self-worth and efficacy, and include formal and informal strategies that discourage the formation of isolated groups of students who feel disconnected from the school mainstream. At the workshops, Berends said that some form of oversight would be advisable regarding tracking assignments. Researchers have found that tracking assignments apparently made in terms of academic ability were actually more reflective of disruptive behavior in the classroom (Hinshaw, 1992; Jimerson et al., 1997; Loeber et al., 1989; Sandoval, 1984). Not only are there dangers in slowing the process of learning among those who are not having difficulties, but bringing disruptive children together also may increase their disruptive behaviors.

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop Research has also found racial and social class differences in students in high school tracks, with non-Asian minority and low-income students in low tracks and economically advantaged and white students in high tracks (Oakes, 1992). It was also found that when tracking is based on an advising system, the adviser too often steers some minority students into vocational tracks regardless of their abilities. Sometimes parental intervention alters the outcome, but, as several people at the workshop noted, such intervention is unnecessary for middle-class white children because these students tend to be assigned to high tracks. Informal tracking is common in elementary schools. For example, teachers may divide children into reading groups based on their skills. Some schools divide students into classrooms based on their assumed ability to learn. These groupings typically also set off upper- and middleclass white children from all others. Workshop participants agreed that criteria for tracking should be monitored and that effects of tracking on both learning and behavior should be studied, especially among young children. Discussion also addressed the absence of evidence that ability grouping increased learning (Oakes, 1992). Participants noted that children learn by teaching one another, so that having slower learners in a class with fast learners may benefit both. In an atmosphere that promotes interactions among children with different abilities, children also learn how to be considerate of people who seem different from them. A good deal of informal evidence shows that when children who are considered slow learners are grouped together, they come to see themselves in an unfavorable light. Such self-denigration contributes to a dislike for school and to truancy and delinquency (Berends, 1995; Gold and Mann, 1972; Kaplan and Johnson, 1991). EXPULSION In many instances schools appear to have no choice but to remove misbehaving or violent students from mainstream classrooms. Not only might disruptive children interfere with the learning of other students, in some cases the law mandates removing children when their behavior is very disruptive. The negative effects of grouping students in alternative settings, outside the mainstream classroom, are not well addressed by expulsion policies that call for the removal of children from classrooms. Workshop participants noted the need for separating disruptive students but emphasized the importance of being aware of the probable negative consequences of grouping misbehaving students, chief among them peer reinforcement of negative attitudes and behavior. Schools are quickly moving toward policies of zero tolerance of school

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop violence. What is troublesome is the trivial use of zero tolerance policies that inappropriately expel youths for whom there are other more benign options. Although some school systems offer alternative educational placements, problems arise when provisions are not made for continuing the education of expelled youths. Generally, school systems have paid little attention to this. According to Gale Morrison, of the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara, school expulsion is not only a risk factor in itself, in that it sets the student on a trajectory that can lead to delinquency and school failure, but also an indicator that there are other disruptive or dysfunctional influences in a child’s life. Not only does exclusion from school make it more difficult for a child to keep up with academic subjects, but it also gives children more time without supervision (Henry et al., 1999). Morrison argued that poor school performance should be seen as an early warning sign that alerts teachers and administrators to the possible need for intervention—that is, before behavior develops that makes expulsion seem necessary. It is important that educators and researchers understand that the circumstances under which children are expelled are diverse and complex, as are the characteristics of these students. A study of 158 students recommended for expulsion over a 2-year period found that the incidents leading to the recommendations fit into four categories by severity of the offense: weapon possession or involvement, drug possession or involvement, defiance or insubordination, or a combination of weapon and drug possession (Morrison and D’Incau, 1997). Incidents could also be categorized as either intentional or accidental (e.g., a pocketknife left in a pocket after a weekend fishing trip) and as threatening or low threat (e.g., a weapon drawn in a fight versus a weapon found in a locker). Morrison and D’Incau (1997) found that students recommended for expulsion were primarily involved in incidents involving weapons. Incidents involving students with a history of misbehavior were more serious than incidents involving first-time offenders. Students with weak bonds to school (e.g., attendance problems) were involved in more drug offenses and combined drug and weapons offenses than first-time offenders or students with a history of misbehaving. Morrison noted that despite the zero tolerance strategies of many schools, boards of education exercise considerable discretion in the handling of individual cases brought before them. Morrison and D’Incau (1997) found that family problems and weak bonds to school (e.g., frequent truancy) increase the likelihood of expulsion. Alternatively, if there is a family member, community agency, or professional advocating on behalf of a child, expulsion is less likely to occur. Student involvement in extracurricular activities or school leadership works as a protective factor

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop against unfavorable expulsion decisions. Special education also serves as a protective factor against expulsion, since strict federal laws discourage a disruption in the education of these students, even when the reason is disciplinary. Workshop participants learned that little is known about the consequences of placement in special disciplinary classes or schools or of expulsion. Morrison suggested that a wide range of options and programming be made available to children expelled from school, and programs must match the diversity of context and circumstances appropriate to students. In addition, educators and researchers must understand how the overlay of social and emotional problems adds to a child’s experiences and behavior at school and in the classroom. Nonsupportive family situations and comorbid disabilities (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) create a chaotic environment for children. Morrison argued that children and schools might benefit from the development of clear prognostic criteria or performance standards that would make early intervention possible.