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Child Watch® Column: "Pushing Children Out of School—A New American Value?"

Release Date: July 20, 2012

Marian Wright Edelman

In 1642 the Massachusetts General Court passed one of the very first laws about education in what would become the United States. It ruled that because it was apparent “the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth,” all parents and guardians were required to make sure children received “so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes.” Educating children well enough to read and understand the laws of the community was considered so critical that local selectmen were put in charge of making sure it was done—and they would be able to tell children hadn’t been educated properly if they became “rude, stubborn & unruly.”

For generations to come the power of education to develop good character and put young people on the right path remained a cornerstone of American thought about teaching our children. Building good citizens stayed right up there with reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic as a key goal of education and was one of the early justifications for providing public schools for all, as leaders continued to argue that if educating every child benefitted the whole community neglecting education was dangerous for everyone.

Thomas Jefferson, a strong advocate for expanding educational opportunity across classes (at least for Whites), said in an 1818 letter: “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.” A few decades later education reformer Horace Mann, considered the “father” of the common school movement in America, made a similar point: “Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.” For many more years teachers remained deeply respected community members who were often revered for being strong positive role models. This was considered especially critical when teachers were filling this role for children who otherwise might not be getting it at home.

But today something has changed. We still say all of the same kinds of things about the power good schools and teachers have to radically transform a child’s chances in life. We’ve now measured the connection between how much education a child receives and future success. We know the dangers of dropping out, especially for the most vulnerable children and youths who have fewer high quality schools and resources than affluent children and fewer positive options for spending unsupervised time away from school. Politicians and celebrities do public service ads urging children to stay in school. But as soon as a child gets in trouble, too often the very first thing schools do is to kick them out of class. A public school student receives an out-of school suspension every second and a half during the school year. I’ve never understood how it makes any sense, for example, to suspend or put a child out of school who is absent, truant, or tardy and is not coming to school. Wouldn’t it make more sense to find out why they are not coming to school? And when as many as 7.5 million children are chronically absent, as a new report by Johns Hopkins’ Robert Balfanz says, shouldn’t we have more vigilant policies to determine why and tackle the causes?

Data released this spring by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed in 2009 that 6.9 percent of all students received at least one out-of-school suspension; the out-of-school suspension rate went up to 14.7 percent for Black students. We may continue to talk about education as the great equalizer, but when it comes to pushing children out of school we are failing Black children most, especially Black males. One in five Black boys and more than one in ten Black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Black students were over three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers. We need to get to the root of these racial disparities.

The findings are even more troubling for the most serious school forms of discipline: Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or who are referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or Black. Zero tolerance school discipline policies only add to the problem. The stories of six-year-old kindergartener Salecia Johnson, who was arrested in handcuffs at her Milledgeville, Georgia elementary school in April and driven to the police station in a squad car for throwing a tantrum, and Desre’e Watson, who underwent the same ordeal several years ago as a six-year-old kindergartner in Avon Park, Florida, were horrifying reminders that even our youngest children are at risk of being poorly handled. I find it hard to believe that one, two, or three adults can’t manage a six-year-old during or after a temper tantrum without calling the police and arresting them. Sometimes I think we adults have lost our common and moral sense!

Instead of educating children well enough so that they will not become “rude, stubborn, & unruly” we now reject them at the first sign of any disobedience using widely subjective catchall phrases and offenses like disrespectful or disruptive. Most suspensions are for nonviolent offenses. Too many schools are pushing children into the juvenile and criminal justice systems to make them someone else’s problem. It should be little surprise when so many of the same children who are punished by being pushed out of school go on to become the same ones who drop out and stay away for good. A public high school student drops out of school every eight seconds during the school year. And it should be even less surprising when many of the young people who drop out are the same ones whose behavior we continue to complain about and fear and for whom we pay to build costly prison cells later. It’s called the cradle to school to prison pipeline. States are spending on average two and a half times more per prisoner than per public school pupil. I think this is a very dumb investment policy which hurts children and the nation’s future workforce.

If giving all children an education still benefits an entire community, and if not educating children still makes it more likely their future “ignorance and vices” will “cost us [dearly] in their consequences,” every time a child is excluded from school by adults or is chronically absent without any actions to determine why, we are failing the child and undercutting the importance of education. Hundreds of years after Americans first made that connection, what will it take for us to get it again today?

Geoff Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Dr. Robert Balfanz, and a distinguished panel of educators will be discussing the importance of closing the achievement gap for poor children at CDF’s national conference on July 24th. The first step to educating children is keeping them in rather than putting them out of school.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by Lcsix at: July 29, 2012
Started off promising, but the simplicity of the discussion tells me that Mrs. Edelman and her panel would benefit from coming into the public school and teaching for a year or two. Where is the discussion on parents role in the stats mentioned? I'm addition, is the notion of all students going to college realistic? The statistics are still very low in this country. Why don't we take the stigma off of vocational training so that we can teach more young people to become productive members of our society?

Submitted by CL WS NC at: July 21, 2012
I and others researched out of suspensions locally. In at least one case, it was more likely that a student be suspended than graduate. Tne NC Supreme Court and other state courts have outlawed OSS. However, there are few teeth that will ensure that in school suspension will keep students on track, that teachers will be certified, ISS teachers are prepared with lessons and books to be sure that child stays on track. In addition, the root cause of reasons for absence, behavior, or other disengagement are not addressed any better. We must be vigilant. There is ample evidence to help us target issues. Coalitions of concerned citizens, faith-based communities, civic and fraternal organizations must partner to visit schools including ISS, attend school board meetings with visible reminders of our concerns whether or not the issues is addressed, arm ourselves with information on the economic and other costs when these children are forgotten.

Submitted by NAN at: July 21, 2012
I would like to see this article printed in every newspaper in the United States, MAYBE, THE SCHOOL SYSTEMS WOULD HAVE AT THE VERY LEAST, ONE OUNCE OF SHAME. It is now all about the money for the least work. God forbid, a child gets angry, you can be sure no one ask or cares or wonders why, or looks at their home life. There are still a few caring educators, but less administrators, who do not make sure the teachers are qualified for special education, the coach needs to be place and that is the only opening.

Submitted by Tony at: July 21, 2012
This past year, our 2nd oldest son got suspended for skipping high school and classes. This happened 3 times. I said Huh? How does giving him more time away from the classroom help him learn? Our decision along with his mother and step father is to home educate him for the remaining 3 years of high school. May be pushing children out of school isn't such a bad thing if we are committed to their learning inside our own homes.

Submitted by Brenda C. at: July 21, 2012
I liked your thoughts on the subject. I have always wondered myself why the kids that most need to be in school are the ones getting the out-of-school suspensions! However, one local school had a room set aside called the "opportunity center", but if it was only a get-your-schoolwork-done-here-or-else place, then I don't see the usefulness. How about some one-on-one counseling during the big time-out. Speaking of counselors, the number of counselors and mentors needs to increase, but all I see is more budget cuts and they are letting most of the counselors go. Thanks for the article.

Submitted by Bonnie Jean Smith Author at: July 21, 2012
It is amazing to me that we have not figured out why so many students are failing. It is not because they cannot is because they are not being taught. There are no relationships between the educators and the parents,the administrators too many,are not supporting their educators nor students. When the children are the main customers for the education system they will thrive, but as long as they are considered the problem the people in charge will never close the gap because they keep looking in the wrong direction. Are they doing this on purpose, who knows but it is frustrating to see the same statements about achievement gaps over and over and over again. I have watched children who have been disengaged from learning come alive again and love, thirst for knowledge only to have the adults in their lives have "low" expectations of them or try to teach each student as though they learn the same exact way.We are all different! There are educators that get that but have their hands tied by the education system that will not allow them to teach! Amazing!!!!!

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 21, 2012
It looks like this country is headed to a Feudalistic caste system--sooooo sad!

Submitted by pfran at: July 21, 2012
what's the answer?

Submitted by pfran at: July 21, 2012
What's the solution? What should happen when a child is so "disruptive" or has such violent behavior that teahcing and learning cannot continue? Should the learning of 30 get sacrificed for one child?

Submitted by Mary H. at: July 20, 2012
Part of the problem with education today is that too much emphasis is placed on college preparation and not enough on life preparation. When more and more math and science are required for high school graduation, too many of our students are labeled 'failures' before they even get a chance to start a life. College prep should be available and possible for any student who wants a career that requires a degree, but there are many honorable, productive, and rewarding careers possible that don't require a degree. We still don't require courses that teach how to balance a checkbook, prepare simple tasty (and healthy) meals, how much financing a car or furniture costs, as well as other important life skills that all students can benefit from. Trade and technical courses should be available for high school students. If students can take courses that interest them, they are more likely to stay in school.

Submitted by Lynda at: July 20, 2012
It's so right-on. Through my daughter I found that even just one teacher who cares can make a difference. For her it was her 5th grade teacher who was willing to make the effort to relate to an extremely shy child who did her best to miss school. When my daughter came home less than a week into 5th grade and asked me if she could go into school early and leave a little later because she wanted to help the teacher - I knew. The truth is teachers can make a world of difference in the life of a child, however I think that these days teachers compelled to grind out results instead of turning out thinking, caring individuals.