VanHoose Education Center | Photo by Olivia Krauth

A University of Louisville researcher has found that the more engaged Jefferson County Public Schools students are in a lesson, the less likely they are to get into trouble. That includes receiving suspensions, which JCPS has been targeting over the past year.

Terry Scott, director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Instructional and Behavioral Research in Schools, led hundreds of classroom observations across 59 district schools. His team watched from the back of the room as teachers taught, picking students at random to see how educators interact with students of different races and abilities.

Those observations turned into hundreds of lines of data to determine if suspensions in JCPS can be predicted. They can be, Scott said, but you can’t predict disparities along lines of race or special needs yet.

Students of color and their white peers misbehave the same amount, Scott found. But black students are suspended around three times more than white students in JCPS and other large urban districts.

“If you’ve got a population of kids that are different from the norm, you’re going to be disproportional,” Scott said. “If you’re different in some way, you’re probably excluded in some ways.”

Terry Scott | Courtesy of UofL

It is hard to explain the disparity through school-level data, Scott told Insider Louisville. Teachers who suspend a lot are averaged out by teachers who don’t punish at all.

He is working with other researchers, including some at the University of Florida, to analyze classroom-level data to see if JCPS can predict disproportionate suspensions and to see if disabled students of color are even more heavily punished.

According to the newest district data, JCPS’ referrals and suspensions dropped this school year — 4% for referrals and 16% for suspensions. The disparity in suspensions between white and black students dropped marginally.

Scott’s new research — putting data behind anecdotes — could lead to professional development changes in JCPS that further those numbers. A JCPS spokeswoman said they do not anticipate any policy changes based on the new research.

But teachers are split on how behavior is actually faring in JCPS. Of those who talked to Insider Louisville, a little more than a third believe behavior is improving. Focuses on restorative practices and positive behavior systems are helping. Internal support from school leaders is, too.

Over the year, district officials have maintained that multiple initiatives aimed at addressing the root of behavior instead of punishment are the reason behind suspension and referral drops. Every suspension is reviewed by district officials to check behavior event coding and if it the violation warranted time out of school.

But other teachers who talked to Insider said student behavior is not improving — in some situations, they say, it feels like it is worsening. They feel pressured by administrators to keep referrals and suspensions to a minimum to reduce the school’s overall disciplinary numbers.

Educators simultaneously feel pressured to boost students’ test scores and “keep everybody happy” — an “impossible” task, one middle school teacher told Insider. She began to transfer the stress onto kids, quickly feeling guilty. Now the tension all “piles on me,” she said.

She plans to transfer to a different school for the coming year.

One rebuttal she heard from school leaders when pushing against behavior issues: If you had more interesting lessons, students wouldn’t act out as much.

If one more assistant principal or principal says “that the kids wouldn’t act up if we just had fun lessons, I may scream,” the teacher said.

The mentality places too much onus on teachers, she told Insider. Often, students act out due to trauma in their home lives. Maybe they came to school hungry. Maybe they don’t own a mattress. Teachers can’t fix everything, she said.

As a former special education teacher, Scott understands. “You’re going to have those problems,” he said. “At the same time, it kind of abdicates our responsibility to say there aren’t things we can do to make it better.”

Typically, the response to battle student behavior is to bring in school resource officers, he said. But other research shows a “get tough” mindset can exacerbate behavior issues.

Instead, schools should focus on instruction and student relationships, he said. “When you see schools where there’s instruction that engages kids and sets kids up to be successful, we see less problem behavior.

“And it doesn’t matter if that school was a poverty school or a school with a lot of minorities or a school with low minorities … once you put effective instruction into place, it just seems to be the thing.”

Giving students “opportunities to respond” — times where they can think and talk about what they’re learning — is one element of boosting engagement, he said.

One JCPS high school teacher said she purposefully teaches in a way that resonates with students. She reported improved student behavior, adding she’s needed to write up less than five students in the past year.

“But that doesn’t mean each student is 100% engaged all the time,” she said, adding cellphone use is a top distractor. “It’s troubling to me.”

Her “pocket ace” to solving the phone issue: Strong relationships with her students so they’ll put them away quickly. District leaders can give schools and educators resources to build better relationships and use other culturally responsive practices to mitigate behavior issues, she said.

“When teachers have good relationships with kids, and design instruction in ways that are relevant to students, behaviors are minimized,” she said. “Students are more curious and engaged. Students avoid disappointing teachers they care about and teachers they have relationships with especially if they know that teacher cares about them.”

Providing positive feedback to students also helps, Scott said. His past research shows black male students are more likely to receive negative feedback from teachers, even if those teachers are black, too. Everyone has an implicit bias, Scott said, and it doesn’t go away. But those biases can be rewired.

Instead of thinking which students you need to watch, teachers need to think about which students need more assistance that day, he said. If you wait for a kid to break a rule, you will eventually see it happen, he said.

The two keys “alone are significant, negative predictors of suspensions,” Scott said.

“If we really want to lower suspension, what we want to be thinking about in the near and distant future is how do we think about these basics of climate and instruction as things we need to work on?”

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy.Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern.Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies.Email Olivia at [email protected]