Suspending Judgment

It was a panel of students, at our before-school meeting, that drove home the point: students want classrooms that are under control. The students - boys, girls, Hispanic, African-American, white, older, younger - were unanimous: get kids out of our classroom who keep us from learning.

Immediately after the student panel, we looked at school data showing the numbers of students who failed English I (100) and Algebra I (90), and the number of students suspended from school long-term (104). Of those 104 students, 39 were suspended for the rest of the year; the remaining 65 returned to school. These suspension numbers do not include students suspended for short periods of time.

The first, obvious although I believe incorrect, conclusion to draw from the data is that if we do not suspend students then they will be more likely to pass their classes. An alternative conclusion, drawing on the stories recounted by the student panel, is that too many disruptive students are placed back in classrooms where they prevent other students from learning.

Certainly, any of us who have taught these classes know that one or two students can take down an entire class. Sure, we can see on tv teacher-heroes who turn belligerent teen-agers into self-disciplined agents of learning. And, in fact, each of us who has taught these classes can tell our own story of the student we reached who turned his or her life around. Those are the stories that keep us teaching.

Still, the reality is that the best of teachers work hard to control the classroom, and that when a disruptive student is placed back into the room without an agreement of behavior-change, it is virtually impossible to teach successfully.

We seem to have many advocates for reducing suspensions and keeping kids in school. Those advocates are important. But, we seem to have few advocates for children who are quietly trying to go about their education only to see their learning obstructed by other students.

I do not believe in throwing children out on the streets. No teacher believes that. I do believe, however, that a school, and school system, needs alternatives to traditional classrooms for children who disrupt learning for others.

It is not only the suspended students who fail. It is also the students who are prevented from learning who go down with them. That is a tragedy.