In the Classroom

A strong push is needed to make discipline more fair for all students, panelists say

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Fixing problems in schools that cause black children to face harsher discipline than white students is not an easy challenge to overcome, but local education leaders say building stronger relationships between students and teachers is an essential piece of the puzzle.

When it comes to school discipline, the odds are stacked against black students in Indiana.

They are more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled from school, no matter whether their school has few black students or many. That can have a ripple effect, dragging down their academic performance and increasing the chance that black children will drop out of school.

A panel discussion examining the issue, hosted by The Mind Trust and the UNCF tonight, drew about 70 attendees, including leaders such as Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Indiana data reveals that black students are suspended or expelled at alarmingly high rates compared to their peers. Although they make up just 12 percent of the children in Indiana schools, about 40 percent of students who are suspended or expelled are black, according to Russell Skiba, director of The Equity Project at Indiana University, which tracks disparities in discipline.

It’s easy to think of suspensions and expulsions as a last resort for students who are dangerous or violent. But in fact, only 5 percent of suspensions and expulsions stem from battery, drug-related or violent incidents.

Many students are punished severely for subjective offenses, such as defiance, said Carole Craig, a veteran educator, member of the NAACP education committee and one of the panelists. In order for Indiana to reduce discipline disparities, schools should only be allowed to suspend students for dangerous behavior, she said.

“It’s the policy that’s allowing this. It’s not the behavior of the students,” she said. “We have to look at how do we view race, what are our unbiased opinions about, what kind of perceptions do we have about black males?”

Harsh discipline can have disastrous ramifications for students, reducing the time they spend in school learning and dramatically increasing the chance that they will drop out of school, according to a research summary from Skiba.

The key to reducing suspensions among black students is strong relationships with teachers, said Wanda Legrand, IPS deputy superintendent for academics. Relationships are the bedrock of alternative discipline programs that are less punitive than suspension, she said.

“Relationships with students will eliminate most of the problems that you see in classrooms,” said Legrand, who is implementing race and equity training for the district.

Ahmed Young, who leads Hogsett’s education team, echoed the importance of getting to know students. When he was teaching, his first priority was showing students that he cared about their lives, Young said.

“As a teacher, I would spend the first almost two or three weeks not touching the standards, not touching the curriculum, not touching a single book, but really getting to know each and every one of my students,” he said. “It laid the foundation to have those difficult conversations to address those really substantive issues that each child comes into the classroom with.”

But many teachers don’t have the time or opportunity to build such deep relationships with all of their students. Schools are short on support staff, like counselors, and they don’t have the resources to provide adequate teacher training, Craig said.

“You really want to take a prep period or lunch period to talk and give students that personal attention, (but) you don’t really have that,” Craig said. “Our teachers are absolutely stretched.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”