Reading and Read Rights

Two week-ends ago, I found myself sitting in a conference room adjacent to the lovely North Carolina Botanical Gardens. I was surrounded by fellow students from all over the country who were dedicated to impacting change in education reform. The guest speaker for the day, Tyronna Hooker, had nearly everyone in tears by the end of her talk, much to my mascara’s dismay. All of her stories were inspiring and motivating, and they linger in my mind even two weeks later. I had almost forgotten about her point that “if you never learn how to read, then someone is going to read you your rights” when I found myself looking at story about NC HEAT’s website, after clicking on a series of links while doing research for a project.

The story talked about how on February 3rd, members of NC HEAT, an organization of student activists dedicated to ending the School to Prison Pipeline, presented a cake to the new superintendent of Wake County Schools branded with the number “14,184.” That is the number of suspensions that occurred for last year in the district.

The students had organized, in part, because of those 14,184 suspensions, 60% of suspended students were black, despite the fact that black students only constitute 24.7% of the school population in Wake County.

Nationally, the news isn’t much better. In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that one in four African American students were suspended, as opposed to the 7.1 percent of white students who could expect to be suspended.

These numbers strike me as indicators of an unfair system and raise a host of questions: Why is this so? How is the decision to suspend determined?  How does taking a student out of the classroom impact performance? What role does disciplinary policy (zero tolerance v. PBIS) structure and implementation play in the development of these statistics?  What is the impact of this discipline disparity on achievement?

I do not expect to adequately answer all of these questions, but I would like to bring up a theory proposed by Kenneth A. Anderson, Keith E. Howard, and Anthony Graham in “Reading Achievement, Suspensions, and African American Males in Middle School.” After completing an in depth study in a single district, they concluded that there was a possible relationship between reading ability and suspension rate, especially at the end of 6th grade. Further, they found that the greatest predictor of a suspension was a previous suspension.

This relationship between literacy and suspension is extremely problematic. Presuming that students are struggling with reading and that it is one (emphasis on one) factor impacting the rate of suspension, suspended at home or in-school, away from teachers and classmates can reasonably be expected to exacerbate the problem rather than cure it.

Though there are many causes and variables contributing to suspensions, and literacy is just one of those contributing to a complex equations, these troubling statistics leave me with thoughts of the School to Prison Pipeline and the reading of rights. Literacy is only one piece of this complex puzzle, but, moving forward, it is one that must be considered within the discussion of discipline policy.


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