California in recent years has arguably become the best state in the nation at holding school districts accountable for their suspension rates — but a number of districts are still lagging considerably when it comes to addressing suspension disparities among specific groups of students and supporting alternatives to traditional discipline, according to a new statewide report.
Thanks to the debut last year of the school accountability system known as the California School Dashboard, the state is one of just three nationwide to include suspension rates as a top indicator of overall school performance, and it sets the most stringent goals, asserts the report released Thursday by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide crime prevention and youth advocacy organization.
While districts have been required to address suspension rates since 2013 when the state Legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) — Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping school reform law — the dashboard has taken the responsibility to another level, said Brian Lee, the California director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and author of the report, which analyzed the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) from the state’s fifty largest districts.
“Now that (suspension rates) have been elevated to one of the top indicators on the dashboard, districts have a sense of what they should strive for,” Lee said. “Before you had to say you were doing something but there was no standard for it, or real accountability.”
The dashboard uses a color-coded rating system to track school performance based on suspension rates and three other statewide indicators: math and English standardized test scores, English language learner progress and graduation rates. College and career readiness and chronic absenteeism will be added soon, state officials say.
Of the 50 districts Lee studied, 44 set specific targets for lowering overall suspension rates. However, only 26 districts set specific goals for subgroups of students, including students of color and those with disabilities. This is not acceptable, say Lee and others, because it’s been well established that disabled students and students of color, most notably African-American boys, are suspended at significantly higher rates than their white classmates.
“It is disappointing that only half (of all districts) are coming up with specific subgroup goals,” Lee said. “It raises a question of whether districts are effectively addressing the issue.”
Regarding school climate surveys, which advocates and educators acknowledge are crucial in determining whether discipline reform measures are working, the report found that while 80 percent of districts are doing surveys annually, many are not setting sufficient goals for improving school climates.
Just half of the districts studied have set goals for improving “safety and connectedness” in schools, the analysis found. And even fewer set goals for improving climates not just for students, but also for teachers and parents, which the LCFF statute requires.
Lee said it was heartening to learn that a number of districts attribute drops in suspension rates to their use of alternatives to traditional discipline, including Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), which focuses on modeling positive behaviors, and restorative justice, which emphasizes mediation and face-to-face conflict resolution over punitive discipline.
However, his analysis of the LCAPs showed that districts in general are not devoting adequate staff and training resources to PBIS and restorative justice and that many are not transparent in their budgeting for these new approaches.
Finally, Lee said districts need to do a better job of including current data in their LCAPs. Too often, he said, the public is getting old suspension data in the reports when fresh data is available.
“The LCAPs are there to provide useful information to parents and community members,” Lee said. “It’s a lot less useful when you don’t have the current data.”
Click here for the full report.
Correction: This story was corrected to state college and career readiness will be added to the California School Dashboard at a future time.