The classroom can break the cycle of poverty. It’s an axiom we hear routinely, in stump speeches and research papers. “The great equalizer,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it. “The one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege.”
Education can help turn a poor boy into a rich man, can fuel the promises of American Dream–work hard play and by the rules, find success.
Constructing a system that achieves those expectations for everybody, of course, is a challenge that policymakers have faced since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
The reality is bleaker. The students who come from the least money often have the most trouble at school. According to a study released this week by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of low-income students — the South Bronx — also has the highest rate of suspensions.
The study analyzed public school punishment data from the 2010-11 school year.
In the South Bronx’s Community School District Seven, where 85 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 8 percent of students were suspended, nearly double city-wide average.
The authors of the paper, “How School Discipline Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” posit that such stats reflect a school system that disproportionately targets low-income students, minorities, and special needs students for the harshest forms of punishment.
Special needs students were suspended at twice the rate of general education students. Black and Hispanic students, who make up 70 percent of the public school system, made up more than 90 percent of those arrested at school.
Not surprisingly, then, the neighborhoods that experience the most stop-and-frisks are the same ones that have the most school suspensions.
“Overly punitive school discipline feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and contributes to the failure of New York’s public school system to educate the city’s most disadvantaged students,” the paper states.
City schools tightened their disciplinary strategy under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. In 2003 Bloomberg implemented a policy that ordered “an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation” of school rules — a sort of “Broken Windows” strategy for the classroom.
The results were drastic: during the 2003-04 school year, there were 31,493 suspensions; during the 2008-09 year, there were 73,943. The numbers have hovered around there since.
The increase in suspensions, however, has not brought with it a noticeable closing of the achievement gap, which grew wider with the results of last year’s Common Core tests.
In the math section, more than half of all white and Asian students passed, versus fewer than one-fifth of Hispanic and black students. The numbers looked similar for English.
The Common Core’s higher standards brought test scores down across the board. But the district with the biggest drop? Community School District Seven, where math scores sank by 75 percent and reading scores by 65 percent.
Next: Read the study in full.
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