This American Suspension

The much beloved public radio program, This American Life, recently aired this episode exploring behavior management in schools. With the title of “This Isn’t Working”, the show highlights stories and interviews with students, teachers, ‘guinea pigs’ and parents all questioning and shedding light on behavior management practices in our schools, from the good to the bad to the truly ugly.

Mixing hard-hitting data with moving personal narratives, the streaming show (also available as a downloadable podcast) bring to life the complex and controversial issue of punishment in its many incarnations in our school, diving deep into why we as teachers and educational leaders arrive at decisions that as the evidence suggests, ends up feeding into a self-fulfilling cycle of defiance, control and failure, which commonly leads many of our Latino and African-American students straight into the hungry arms of the penal system.  

Oakland is no stranger to the themes and situations mentioned here. From Restorative Justice programs to the harsh and humiliating practices experimented at the American Indian Charter School, this episode delves into what has and has not been working in our schools and why.

The urgency is evident, of course, in the fact that behavior is often cited as a reason why so many teachers in Oakland and similar districts have a hard time sticking with the job. How often has an Oakland teacher heard that they are saints or masochists by those who think that our schools are cauldrons of despair and violence? There is much to ruminate upon here, and plenty of food for discussion, but few real answers to the deepest question raised here, mainly, what is the the right balance between justice and social control? And will these two be forever at odds?