Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State

Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State

An old joke tells of a police officer confronting a man crawling on his hands and knees beneath a streetlight one night. The man explains he is looking for his lost keys. When the officer asks if the man is sure he dropped the keys where he is crawling, the man replies, “No, but the light is better here.”

This joke offers something that is deadly serious about both school discipline and the U.S. judicial and incarceration systems: Males, specifically black males, suffer the brunt of punishment in schools and life because they are disproportionately targeted.

Richland 2’s task force examining inequity of discipline and expulsion for black males reflects a pattern that exists nation-wide. In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing dataabout racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”

Expulsion and suspension begin as early as pre-kindergarten, also disproportionately affecting males and black students. Along with grade retention, discipline policies strongly predict drop-out rates as well as incarceration in adulthood.

Often called the school-to-prison pipeline, the relationship between school discipline and the judicial system demands attention, such as the task force by Richland 2.

But the public response to this data often includes two misleading claims. First, many directly embrace suspension and expulsion as part of a larger faith in a “do the crime and do the time” mentality. Second, some immediately assume raising concerns about race-based discipline inequity is a call to let students do whatever they want in school.

In order to understand the race problem in school discipline and then how to address those inequities in ways that benefit everyone, let’s consider the current mass incarceration situation in the U.S.

White males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in the U.S., but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in our prisons.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has labeled this the New Jim Crow. In her examination of the rise of mass incarceration begun during the Reagan administration, Alexander admits that she began her project rejecting the claim that the judicial system is racially biased against blacks.

However, she discovered ample evidence for race playing a key role in who is arrested and imprisoned as well as what punishments people receive. Two examples are worth highlighting.

First, The Fair Sentencing Act is the result of recognizing that penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine created significant disparities in arrests and sentencing along racial lines. And while whites and blacks use marijuana at equal rates, blacks suffer higher rates of arrest and sentencing as well as harsher penalties.

Alexander, in fact, details that whites and blacks experience much different routes in the judicial system after being arrested for similar crimes, experiences represented by the drug war noted above.

Next, I want to return to the opening joke because Alexander also shows that police tend to target blacks more often than whites for arrests.

Her most powerful example is that while the police commonly sweep minority and high-poverty neighborhoods for illegal recreational drugs, the police almost never conduct similar sweeps through college campus dorms—where recreational drug use is also likely.

The light, then, being shined results in arrests, but if that light were aimed somewhere else, who is arrested would also change.

The conditions of mass incarceration confronted by Alexander are now being recognized in the disciplinary policies, such as zero tolerance, and outcomes in public schools, where black males are disproportionately suffer the negative consequences that last into adulthood, even though we have no evidence blacks exhibit worse behavior.

Just as research on grade retention and corporal punishment suggest more effective alternatives to both—alternative that do not simply allow failure or harmful behavior—Walter S. Gilliam, psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine, suggests schools treat extreme behavior instead of using punishment, address teacher stress and time spent with children exhibiting extreme behavior, lower student-teacher ratios, maintain better records of disciplinary actions toward children, and implement wrap-around services that address childhood behavior in the home as well as school.

Gender and race inequity exists in school discipline policies; that fact is not an avenue to ignoring bad behavior, but the first step toward seeking ways in which all students succeed in school and then in life.

Arkansas Newswire: U of A Scholar Examines Hunger Games Trilogy as Literature

Arkansas Newswire: U of A Scholar Examines Hunger Games Trilogy as Literature

Please see all the volumes in this series HERE.

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.


Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

#NCTE2014: Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

Gaylord National Resort – Annapolis 1


Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University


“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

“It is 1956, and I am thirteen years old,” begins Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo.  The opening scene reveals DeSalvo’s teenage angst and her desire to flee:

I have begun my adolescence with a vengeance. I am not shaping up to be the young woman I am supposed to be. I am not docile. I am not sweet. I am certainly not quiet. And, as my father tells me dozens of times, I am not agreeable. If he says something is true, I am sure to respond that it is most certainly not true, and that I have the evidence to prove it. I look up at the ceiling and tap my foot when my father and I argue, and this makes him furious.

In the middle of one of our fights, the tears hot on my cheeks, I run out of the house, feeling that I am choking, feeling that if I don’t escape, I will pass out. It is nighttime. It is winter. I have no place to go. But I keep running.

There are welcoming lights a few blocks away. It is the local library. I run up the stairs. I run up to the reading room, sink into one of its comforting, engulfing brown leather chairs, pull an encyclopedia down from the shelf, hold it in front of my face so that no one can see me, so that no one will bother me, and pretend to read so that I won’t be kicked out. It is warm and it is quiet. My shuddering cries stop. My rage subsides. (Prologue, p. xiii)

Libraries, librarians, and teachers return often throughout DeSalvo’s life story that reads as a slightly revised version of Tennessee Williams’s fictional “kindness of strangers”—this a retelling of the kindness of teachers, and of the library as sanctuary.

“There is more than one way to burn a book” (p. 209), Ray Bradbury warns in the “Coda” included in the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451—a comment that motivated a poem of mine, “The 451 App (22 August 2022),” a speculative poem about how the move to electronic books could lead to the dystopian end to books and reading.

Bradbury’s novel, of course, emphasizes the importance of books, and of reading, but Bradbury’s writing of the novel and life also present powerful messages about libraries.

Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time” (p. 168). Further, Bradbury drafted early versions and then Fahrenheit 451 itself in the UCLA Library, working at a dime-per-half-hour typewriter.

Bradbury explains as well in the audio introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians, and book people, and booksellers. (p. 196)

It makes a great deal of sense and offers some literary symmetry, then, that Neil Gaiman wrote the Introduction to Bradbury’s 60th anniversary edition—Gaiman who is the source of a mostly satiric piece I wrote calling for Gaiman to replace Arne Duncan as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Gaiman, like, Bradbury is an advocate of books, of reading, of libraries, and then of children choosing what they read:

It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur….

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them….

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant….

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

As I am writing this, it is late in the year 2014. No dystopia like Bradbury envisioned has happened, and at least potentially, books are more abundant than ever—both in print and electronically.

But a much more insidious dystopia does exist, one that is little different than decades before us and one that comes in the form of policy and what former NCTE president Lou LaBrant called “adult weariness” (p. 276).

Reading and books—and children—have long been the victims of prescribed reading lists, reading programs, and reading legislation. By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

Nearly 65 years later, Common Core, the related high-stakes tests, and rebranded concepts such as “close reading” are poised to have the same chilling effect Bradbury dramatized in Fahrenheit 451, and directly warned about, again: “There is more than one way to burn a book.”

From LaBrant to Stephen Krashen, literacy teachers and scholars have called repeatedly for access to books in the home, well-funded public libraries, and children having choice in what they read.

Instead, we close libraries (and public schools), we defund and underfund what libraries (and schools) remain, and we invest in reading programs and reading tests. That is a very real and painful dystopia.

Like DeSalvo, Gaiman recalls the library as a safe haven:

Nobody is giving you a safe space. I used to love libraries at school. Because school libraries had an enforced quiet policy, which meant they tended to be bully-free zones. They were places where you could do your homework, you could do stuff, whether it was reading books, or getting on with things that you wanted to get on with, and know that you were safe there. And people responded to your enthusiasms. If you like a certain writer, or a certain genre, librarians love that. They love pointing you at things that you’ll also like. And that gets magical.

Here, Gaiman answers his question from his Introduction to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Why do we need the things in books?” (p. xv).

Books as magic, libraries as sanctuaries—we must cast spells, then, to erase the dystopia before us in the form of yet more standards and test, yet more libraries closed, and then yet more children taught to hate the very things and the very places that have made life worth living for so many.

Books and libraries created Gaiman, spawned his belief: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Let’s hope so.


LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

See Also

Neil Gaiman: Libraries are cultural ‘seed corn’

It’s a Book, Lane Smith

Obama’s Failed Education Policy: Symbolism Not Enough In Real World

Superhero comic book universes (popularly associated with DC and Marvel) have two key advantages over reality: reboots (returning to a hero’s origin and starting again—such as Frank Miller’s reboot of Batman in the mid-1980s and the film rebootings of Spider-Man and X-Men over the past 15 years or so) and alternate universes/realities.

The re-imagining of Spider-Man as bi-racial and Captain America as black are powerful contributions to the superhero genre of comic books—in part for the messages about race and in part because superhero comics have had lingering flaws in terms of race and gender since their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of these examples is that they represent the power of symbolism in the context of the imaginary commenting on reality.

In reality, however, we are trapped in a mostly linear existence, one that we attempt to qualify with “history repeats itself” or “those who ignore history are doomed to repeating the failures.”

Human advancements are incremental and rarely universal; some women in some places, for example, have achieved some level of equality with men, while many women remain prisoners of horrific misogyny and gruesome social oppression and abuse.

One lesson of the real world, then, may be that we must not allow the pursuit of perfect to keep us from clinging to something, something better, something creeping toward the ideal.

In a country that remains scarred by the inequity of racism, those people in the U.S. who advocate that the election of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial and self-identifying black man is an important symbolic moment in the nation are, I think, entirely justified—notably if we disassociate Obama’s status as president from his policies.

I struggle, however, with that disassociation—notably in terms of military actions/policy and education policy.

Obama’s education policy has continued a failed agenda begun under George W. Bush (an idealized bi-partisan agenda buoyed by the “bi-partisan” instead of credible educational research or authority), and then increased the very worst aspects of that legacy. Obama has now promised that those failures will last past his tenure:

The Obama administration is inviting states to apply to renew their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And according to guidance issued Thursday, these renewed waivers could last all the way through the 2018-2019 school year — locking down some of President Barack Obama’s education policy changes well into the next presidency.

Obama the symbol is undeniably important; Obama as an administration and set of educational policies is a baffling disaster for public education, the teaching profession, and (worst of all) students, specifically impoverished children and children of color.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embodies the failed discourse and punitive policies that are indistinguishable from W. Bush’s administration except under Obama, everything that is wrong with the policy has been increased: a greater commitment to standards, more testing, expanded blame placed on teachers, expanded shifting of public to private interests and mechanisms.

Under Obama, the U.S. has continued a scorched-earth policy in warmongering (smart bombs, drones) and in public education policy (school closings, teacher firings).

There is no symbolism there we can recover—only a harsh reality of failure and a legacy we can do without.

See Also

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures, P. L. Thomas

The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism? (IAP, 2011) — soon to be reissued and revised.