The question the UCLA report tries to answer is important: Do charter schools use overly harsh discipline practices? There are serious negative consequences for students who are subjected to harsh discipline practices, including loss of learning time, negative self-image, and an increased likelihood of disengagement and dropping out of school. Serious research is needed both to understand where students are being hurt and how schools can do much better. Unfortunately, this report creates more confusion than clarity.
At CRPE, we are committed to an honest assessment of equity and performance in charter schools and we are as interested as anyone in calling out bad actors. CRPE has worked diligently with a panel of research experts to develop principles for how to draw fair comparisons on discipline between charter schools and traditional public schools so that legitimate problems can be tackled head on: The UCLA report disregards most of these principles.
Our expert panel agreed that comparisons must be apples to apples—among individual schools, not between schools and whole districts; among schools serving the same grade levels and demographic groups; and among schools in communities with similar rates of student attendance and school completion. Student behavior issues and penalties must also be defined consistently and recorded in ways that, for example, distinguish between a student’s tenth offense and her first, and between a one-period exclusion from class and a two-week suspension from school. Without appropriate comparisons, one school that is doing a better job than similar schools can actually appear to be doing much worse, and vice versa.