University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

School Discipline in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on July 16, 2014 at 11:45 am

School safety is, without dispute, an important issue (in fact, the OEP named school safety concerns as the #4 story in our top 10 education stories of 2013).  According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the common sense of any teacher or parent, students need a safe environment in order to learn at an optimal level. But sometimes creating a safe environment that is equitable to all students isn’t simple, or else we wouldn’t have issues like those highlighted in a report by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this year.  The report showed large racial disparities in discipline rates, which are often viewed as contributing to a “school-to-prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects students of color and limits their educational opportunities.

aacf reportSo this raises the question: what is the state of discipline and school culture in Arkansas? According to a report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), Arkansas ranks
15th in the country in the use of out-of-school suspension (OSS) for all students and 13th in the disparity between the use of OSS for black and white students. The AACF report also found that black students in Arkansas were suspended about 3.5 times as often as white students.

On Friday, July 11th, OEP Director Gary Ritter presented the results of a study on school discipline rates in Arkansas to the Arkansas State Board of Education. This report was in response to Act 1329 of the Arkansas legislature, which required a report on school discipline by July 1st of each year starting in 2014. Using student-level data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education, with all personal identifiers removed in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), we were able to analyze the relationship between discipline rates, student demographics, and academic achievement.

Before moving to the results, it’s important to consider some limitations of the data.

     1) Lack of transparency of discipline measures

Discipline data are reported by school districts in systems with different codes than the state level codes, so when aggregated up to the state level, some district actions are lumped into an “other” category. Therefore, we lose transparency between the local and state level. In addition, the data did not include categories such as referrals to law enforcement authorities (a key indicator of the “school-to-prison” pipeline), but the ADE will start reporting this measure as of the 2014-15 school year.

     2) Each district has has different discipline policies and resources

The use of resources like deans or other administrators that have time to focus on discipline or the use of School Resource Officers (SROs) differ among schools and districts.

     3) It is not clear how to interpret discipline rates

For instance, both high and low discipline rates could be considered to be good or bad. A district with high discipline rates could be viewed either as positive (the school is not letting anything slide and is doing a great job handling, reporting, and tracking issues) or negative (kids are unruly, and there are a lot of behavior issues).  On the other hand, a district with low discipline rates could be viewed as positive (the school culture is positive, and there are little to no behavior issues) or as negative (the district isn’t reporting the issues that it has, or is letting too many behaviors go unpunished).

Now that we have listed the appropriate caveats to the interpretation of discipline data, let’s move on to the results. In our report, we looked at three-year average discipline rates for seven different actions: In School Suspension (ISS), Out of School Suspension (OSS), Expulsion, Corporal Punishment, referrals to an Alternative Learning Environment (ALE), No Action, and Other.  Act 1329 required a report based on a discipline rate calculated as the number of students who receive a discipline measure divided by the total number of students. The discipline rate using this method was 7.6% for ISS, 4.7% for OSS, and 5.1% for Corporal Punishment. In order to account for the fact that some students may have repeated discipline actions, we have also provided the number of incidences per 100 students. At the state level, there were about 19.5 ISS incidents per 100 students, 13.1 OSS incidents per 100 students, and 7.0 Corporal Punishment incidents per 100 students.  The rates for the other categories were relatively small.

discipline image

So what does this mean? Perhaps for those who don’t believe corporal punishment should still exist in schools (Arkansas is one of 19 states in which corporal punishment is still legal), any rate here is “bad.”  Otherwise, it’s a bit unclear whether high rates are good or bad. To add some clarity, we can at least look at disparities in the rates between various subgroups and try to answer questions related to equity.  This data showed that over the past three years, the ISS rate for non-white students (30.8 incidences per 100 students) was more than double the rate for white students (13.4 incidences per 100 students). The biggest disparity in ISS, however, that we were able to find was between students who had scored basic or below basic on a standardized test in a given year (45.3 incidences per 100 students) compared to students who hadn’t scored basic or below on their exam (13 incidences per 100 students).

ISS disparity rates

The story in OSS rates is similar, though even more striking.  Non-white students (24.8 incidences per 100 students) received OSS at a rate of over 3.6 times as high as white students (6.8 incidences per 100 students), and students who had scored basic or below basic on a standardized test in a given year (31.2 incidences per 100 students) received OSS at a rate of 4.75 times as high as students who hadn’t scored basic or below on their exam (6.6 incidences per 100 students).

At this point, it’s important to reiterate the limitations of the data and methodology used when interpreting this information.  We are only showing correlation at this point between certain demographic factors and discipline rates and are not attempting in any way to show causationIt is unclear for example, whether low-achieving students start out low-achieving and then misbehave because of it or whether students who miss school due to suspension score lower on their tests due to missing instructional time.

Despite the inability to show causation, however, we can come to an important conclusion about the importance of school culture and positive discipline policies. We found that districts with lower discipline rates have higher test scores, which is not surprising. We also found that districts with lower discipline rate disparities between students who scored basic or below basic and those who did not generally also had higher test scores. In other words, not only were the discipline rates lower in higher performing schools but the differences in disciplinary actions between groups were smaller.

The OEP will continue to work with the Arkansas Department of Education on asking and attempting to answer more questions about the relationship between school discipline and student achievement in Arkansas. In the future, the ADE will likely want to look for schools and districts who seem to be getting it right – having positive school culture, low disparity in these rates, and high levels of academic performance among all subgroups, and then identify best practices and resources that can be shared with other districts and schools. Act 1329 cited evidence-based strategies, such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), as ways to improve school culture and reduce behavioral problems. In a variety of studies, PBIS in schools has been linked to lower discipline referrals, higher test scores, lower truancy rates, and improved relationships between students.

For now, school districts should know that there are plenty of resources available. The Arkansas Department of Education provides tools and resources related to PBIS on its website. In addition, the US Department of Education (USDE) has already compiled a fantastic list of resources.

A Working Lunch With The President

In The View from the OEP on July 16, 2014 at 11:44 am

This past week, Justin Minkel of Springdale was one of four teachers selected to have lunch with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Here is a brief video clip of President Obama’s opening remarks.

All four of the teachers work in high-poverty schools, and the focus of the lunch conversation was on how to find quality teachers to serve in these environments. Specifically, the president wanted to know:

  • Why had the teachers stayed in high-poverty schools?
  • What can he and the Secretary do to support teachers in high-need schools?
  • What policies could ensure that students who need the strongest teachers receive them?

In the Washington Post, Minkel summarized the teachers’ four main points:

jones elem1. There’s nothing wrong with the kids.

Minkel told the president about Cesar, a 2nd grader who won $10 in a writing contest. When Minkel asked what he planned to do with his winnings, he said, “I’m going to give it to my mom to help her buy food for our family.” He also told the president about Melissa, a 2nd grader who became the only literate person in her family through a home library project and school-wide support. Melissa told Minkel one day, “Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV, they tell me, ‘Melissa, turn off the TV and read to us,’ so I do.” Students like Melissa and Cesar, who walk into the classroom with greater challenges than more affluent students, are not the obstacle to attracting skilled teachers to high-poverty schools. They’re the motivation.

2. “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

There is great pressure in many low-income schools to raise test scores, which can make teaching and learning less enjoyable for all. Minkel advised the president that teachers are hesitant to work in classrooms that are stripped of educational joys, such as literature, the arts, and critical thinking, to focus instead on test preparation. These teachers are concerned that this is not what students need in order to be successful. Minkel quoted the writer Philip Pullman, who said, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.” He said in order to draw teachers to high-poverty schools to help students excel, we have to “restore some of that delight.”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers. It’s about good and bad teaching.

According to Minkel, there are a “handful” of teachers who cannot or will not improve as teachers, but most of the time this is not the case. Some ways to improve teaching:

  • Allowing teachers time to collaborate
  • Allowing teachers the space to innovate
  • Peer observation
  • Building time into the school day for professional development
  • Mentoring
  • Reflection

With the right support systems in place, the teachers told the president that almost every teacher that is willing to work can move from being a novice to becoming competent and, eventually, excellent.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do those same things.

Teachers should not be seen as just “consumers of policy, professional development, curriculum, and research”–teachers should be creating them.

Hope for the Future

Minkel states that there is hope for lower-income schools. If Springdale’s Jones Elementary, a school with 99% poverty, 85% English Language Learners, and nearly 0%  teacher turnover can create a climate of excellence, then so can other schools. Minkel concludes that there’s nothing wrong with the kids. There are inherent wrongs in the system, but none that cannot be remedied. Including teachers in the conversation on how to improve schools is not going to fix the American educational system, but it’s a good place to start. The last thing the president said to the teachers was, “You all make me feel hopeful.” Minkel states, “President Obama, you left us hopeful, too.”


Justin-MinkelBackground on Justin Minkel

Justin Minkel began his teaching career at P.S. 192 in Harlem, New York City, as a member of Teach For America. He went on complete a Masters in Elementary Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Most recently, Minkel has taught 2nd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, a high-achieving public school where 99% of the students live in poverty and 90% are English Learners. In 2006, Minkel was named Milken Educator for the state of Arkansas. In 2007 he became the Arkansas Teacher of the Year and was Nationally Board Certified in 2011. Minkel also writes a blog for Education Week and serves on the board of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).  Minkel is also the author of the children’s book Clubhouse Clash. He will teach 1st grade part time at Jones Elementary next year.

Educational Philosophy

Minkel believes that his students should be engaged in meaningful real-world projects. For example, his 2nd and 3rd grade students have worked to design, build, advertise, and sell a product of their own invention. This project integrates the disciplines of math, technology, writing, design, and economics. Another of Minkel’s projects includes the engineering challenge of designing a parachute for a gummy bear. Minkel also engages his students through research and creative writing. Minkel believes that even young children should learn “21st century skills” including collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. He reminds his students that “your choices determine your destiny,” and he strives to provide his students with opportunities that allow them to develop their gifts and pursue their passions.

books1,000 Books Project

Another large part of Minkel’s educational philosophy is a strong belief in literacy and the power of putting great books into the hands of children. This belief and the realization that many of his students did not have books at home sparked the 1,000 Books Project. This project sought to provide a library of 40 books in each of his 25 students’ homes. Through donations from Scholastic and other donors, and money from Minkel’s own pocket, the effort was successful and accomplished for less than $100 per student.

We have heard of opportunity gaps, teacher gaps…but what Minkel worked to close is the “book gap.” Researchers have found that in a more affluent community, each child has an average of 13 books. These students have books of their choosing that they bring from home, read when their work is done, and take home with them in the evening. These books are read only for pleasure, not for a grade. However, many children in Springdale may not have books at homes and have limited access to bookstores and public libraries. In poorer neighborhoods, there is an average of just one book for every 300 kids. Minkel states that having books at home improves literacy because students can repeatedly read their favorite texts that are at their reading level. Students in Minkel’s class progressed from their first book, Where The Wild Things Are (a picture book) to their 40th text, The Lightning Thief (a novel for fifth and sixth graders). Also, his students’ parents reported that the children spent increased time reading at home.


It is exciting to have Arkansas represented during this recent meeting with President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan! Thanks to Justin Minkel for being an exceptional educational leader for Arkansas. Stay updated with Minkel’s latest contributions on his two blogs, Teaching for Triumph and Career Teacher, and follow him on Twitter:  @JustinMinkel


PARCC in Arkansas: Moving Forward

In The View from the OEP on July 9, 2014 at 10:12 am

parccThe last time we reported about PARCC, several Arkansas public schools had participated in field testing for PARCC and the field testing was reported to have gone well. However, in a recent article from Politico, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education stated that Arkansas may choose NOT to use PARCC for next year’s roll-out of its first year of Common Core-aligned testing. So, what’s going on with this surprising statement??

Lawsuit in New Mexico

Interestingly, the back story on this announcement begins in New Mexico. According to Education Week, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has filed a lawsuit in the New Mexico state court that argues that the contract for Common Core-aligned testing was awarded to Pearson in an illegal process that benefited Pearson. The PARCC contract awarded to Pearson calls for the company to develop test items, deliver the test, report the results, and analyze student performance.

The dispute began in November 2013, when New Mexico, on behalf of PARCC member states, released the initial request for PARCC testing proposals. In December 2013, the AIR filed a protest with New Mexico state officials regarding the request for bids, arguing that the Pearson was shown favoritism because the request tied assessment in the first year of testing with work in the years to follow, which created a “bundling of work” that favors Pearson. Pearson had already developed a content-delivery platform that would allow them to meet the “bundling” requirement. NM rejected AIR’s protest, stating that it was not filed within the required time frame. In response, the AIR filed an appeal in state court, asking a judge to overturn the state’s decision, declare the process of awarding the contract invalid, block it from going forward, and order that the initial bid be restructured and reissued in a non-biased way.

pearson1Money, money, money

Due to the fact that AIR claimed the bidding process to be unfair, they chose not to bid. In the end, Pearson was the only bidder and won the contract. How much money is at stake? James Mason, who helped negotiate the contract, has stated that the size of the PARCC contract is “unprecedented” by the standards of the U.S. testing industry. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are members of PARCC and this totals around 5.5-10 million students that will be tested on an annual basis. The projected cost for per-student testing is about $24. Thus, this contract is estimated to be worth between $132 million-$240 million. Mason stated that he could not provide an exact dollar amount because it would depend on factors such as how many students and states end up participating and whether they opt for computerized or paper-and-pencil tests.

How does Arkansas fit in?

Politico recently reported about “a new twist in Common Core wars,” which is the widespread disagreement at the state level over testing contracts. The article discussed the AIR lawsuit and predicted that the dispute could last for months and may result in PARCC’s inability to administer exams in the 2014-15 school year. The article then quotes Kimberly Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, who stated that if the lawsuit is not resolved by mid-July, that Arkansas plans to use an alternative form of testing than PARCC.

Most Recent Update

However, on July 3rd, Education Week reported that New Mexico State Purchasing Agent Lawrence O. Maxwell ruled against the AIR, stating that the bidding process for PARCC testing was structured carefully, and not in a biased way. Unless the AIR appeals this decision, Pearson will be free to move forward with test development and proceed on schedule.

Jon Cohen, president of the AIR’s assessment division, told Education Week that his organization had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision. However, from other statements by Cohen, an appeal does not seem extremely likely. Cohen advised that it is not the AIR’s intention to put PARCC in a position where it may not be able to administer tests next year and also stated, “It’s in the country’s interest for PARCC to survive and be healthy…We don’t want to derail the PARCC consortium.” Cohen also said that the AIR was willing for Pearson to receive the contract for the first year or two, but then would like to see the contract opened back up for bids.

forwardThis week, the Democrat-Gazette reported that the dispute in New Mexico has been “resolved” and that PARCC testing will be moving forward. The Arkansas Department of Education had previously set this Wednesday (July 9) as a deadline to decide whether to begin steps to solicit bids and award its own contract to another company who would produce Common Core-aligned exams. Staff from the ADE will report on PARCC at the State Board of Education meeting this Thursday.

In conclusion, with this favorable outcome for PARCC in the resolution of the lawsuit in New Mexico, it seems likely that Arkansas will be using PARCC exams in the upcoming school year, but this was a near-miss and a situation worth following. We at the OEP will keep you updated!




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