VanHoose Education Center

VanHoose Education Center | Photo by Olivia Krauth

New data suggests student behavior — or teachers’ perceptions of it — is not improving in Jefferson County Public Schools, but suspensions are dropping by double-digit percentages.

Referrals, in which student behaviors reach the point teachers report it to school administrators for punishment, remained flat from the 2017-18 to 2018-19 school years, new district data shows. This school year had around 1,000 fewer referrals across over 150 schools and 98,000 students compared to last — a drop of .5%.

Suspensions, however, dropped 13% across the district compared to last year. Most of the decrease stems from a sharp decline in elementary suspensions, which were cut by over half. Middle and high school suspensions dropped 3% to 4%.

Together, the data suggest that student behavior is not changing, but how schools handle it is. Behaviors or students that may have received a suspension in the past are no longer getting one of the district’s top punishments.

The end-of-year data backs some teachers who told Insider Louisville that student behavior is not actually improving, but students are facing less punishment because of unspoken pressure from administrators.

When asked if the district believes the data suggests behavior isn’t improving, but the handling of it is, JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy said, “We are taking a different approach in addressing student behavior.”

JCPS has been working to decrease suspensions over the past year, reporting quarterly data to the school board. Suspensions reported in the presentations account only for out-of-school suspensions, punishments for which students miss classroom time.

“We think we are heading in the right direction,” Murphy said of the results. “We are being very intentional about preventing the loss of instructional time.”

A handful of JCPS teachers who talked to Insider last month were split on if student behavior was changing in light of district initiatives to remedy the situation. About one-third said behavior was improving, but others said it was unchanging or worsening, making it more difficult to teach.

The data isn’t surprising for some of those teachers. One JCPS teacher, who wished to remain anonymous to speak freely about student behavior, said the end-of-year numbers support what teachers experienced this year, she said.

Another teacher said the data aligns with what she’s experienced this year. She added referrals can come from minor infractions like missing library books and being tardy to school, not just major student outbursts.

The trend remained the same in racial disparities in punishments. Black students still received around 2.8 times as many referrals as white students, a figure that shifted by less than a hundredth of a point over two years.

The oft-watched disparity in suspensions, however, contracted. Last year, black students received around three times as many suspensions as their white peers. This year, that narrowed to 2.8 times as many suspensions.

White and black students misbehave the same amount, University of Louisville researcher Terry Scott told Insider Louisville last month. JCPS hopes to drop suspensions for black students by 10% by 2020 as part of a larger racial equity plan.

School board member James Craig said the year-end data is “absolutely a move in the right direction” and expects racial disparities to continue shrinking in the coming years. Outside of maintaining local control of the district, narrowing racial academic and punishment gaps is the board’s top objective, Craig said.

JCPS would not be able to “magically turn around the disparity” in suspensions in one year, Craig said. But the district’s focus on racial equity — including hiring more minority teachers and administrators and hosting racial equity institutes — is helping.

“We’re on the right track but we have to stay on this track,” Craig said. When asked if continued progress over five to six years is sustainable, Craig said, “It has to be.”

As part of a larger focus on student mental health, JCPS is working to shift how teachers view student behaviors to understanding and treating the root issues instead of punishing. Through trauma-informed care training, for example, teachers are taught how home and neighborhood issues can impact a child’s development and manifest as outbursts.

Teachers are also trained in how to be aware of their own implicit bias and how to use restorative practices to help fix the underlying issues of behavior. Positive behavior systems, including giving rewards for following the rules instead of punishments for not, can help, too.

These types of training can work, some teachers have told Insider. Murphy said the district’s efforts “are making a difference.”

But the practices don’t always help, others said, leaving teachers between pressure from school administrators and the students themselves.

Last month, Scott, the researcher, found more engaged students may be the key to lowering the district’s suspension rate. He used hundreds of JCPS classroom observation to put data to the long-held teacher theory that if students are included in a lesson, they’re less likely to act out.

One infraction, failure to respond to a teacher or administrator, may be removed from the student behavior handbook because its definition is too subjective and potentially open to racial bias, Murphy said. The school board postponed a vote on the proposed changes to the handbook last week.

In other findings from the end-of-year data, set to be presented to the school board June 25:

  • Attendance remained flat compared to last year, with chronic absenteeism rates marginally up.
  • Seniors’ readiness for college or career jumped six percentage points since last year. Now, over half of the seniors were deemed transition ready.
  • All student groups, with one exception, saw more students hitting grade level benchmarks in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing in reading and math. The only exception was special education students in reading.