Equal Time: American Federation of Teachers on Teacher Retention and Discipline in Schools

by James C. Sherlock

To balance my reporting on discipline in schools and teacher retention, it is only fair to go to the best progressive source of ideas.

To give them equal time.

It is a close call, but the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is the most progressive and militant of America’s major teachers’ unions. They are proud of that.

But that does not imply that they are ignorant of what is going on in schools. I read their reports and recommendations regularly, and find some interesting ideas there. Some worth considering.

Many of those ideas unfortunately prescribe solutions that require an avalanche of new money and new hiring. More money than they are willing to estimate. More hiring of specialists than are available in the workforce. But a few do not.

One concludes from reading the dozens of resolutions and reports of the AFT that on the subject of student discipline:

  1.  The union recognizes that student discipline and teacher safety are linked and constitute a major problem;
  2. It wants to double down at breathtaking expense on current multi-tiered systems of supports like Virginia’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to solve the problem; and
  3. It does not want students suspended or expelled.

The tension among those three bullets is not explored, but it is unfair to AFT to imply that is all they have to say.

Get a refreshment and we will review some of their ideas.

I refer readers to Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? What America Must Do to Attract and Retain the Educators and School Staff Our Students Need, published by AFT last month.

A caution: that work abandons any pretense of representing a wide range of views. Written by a task force of AFT local presidents supported by AFT staff and based on a survey of AFT members, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow can reasonably be considered the bible of progressive approaches to teacher retention and recruiting.

But that is actually OK. Perfect really. It represents progressive views in their purest form. Equal time.

The four major recommendations:

  1. Revitalize the Educator and School Staff Pipeline;
  2. Restructure Schools to Create Positive Working and Learning Conditions for All;
  3. Provide Sustainable and Commensurate Compensation and Benefits;
  4. Utilize the Collective Voice and Strength of Our Union to Impact
    Change at All Levels.

We will consider here recommendation #2.

Read that whole section starting on pg. 18 of Here Today, Gone Tomorrow for all the details, but I will offer three AFT recommendations that I find interesting, including those that that go directly to the problem of student discipline.

 A.  Community schools. Under the sub-recommendation

Ensure every school has a comprehensive, well- staffed support program with immediately available resources to address the well-being of students and staff.

AFT brings up an idea that they have supported for a while to link a broad range of social and health services to what it calls community schools.

AFT acknowledges that it needs to start a major new federal/state/local program with 25,000 schools. That represents a pilot I suppose. But the concept is attractively presented.

State, local and district resources for social services should be coordinated to provide more effective and efficient support. In addition, every school must have
a student support response team of highly trained individuals who can immediately intervene when student behavior is an issue.

Finally, every school in the country should have the opportunity to become a community school. These public, neighborhood-based schools connect families, schools and communities with “support they need to be safe and healthy, access to the equal opportunities they deserve for prosperity, and a sense of responsibility for civic engagement.” These schools are often open year-round and connect schools and families with social services, healthcare, libraries and extracurricular learning opportunities. [Emphasis added.]

The community schools approach provides a framework that facilitates and supports the collaborative practices and leadership as well as the coordination that is necessary to implement a comprehensive school-based program for student and staff well-being.

These programs should also ensure that the work environment is positively regarded by educators of color and other traditionally marginalized groups.

OK, what will it take to get community schools started?

AFT wants the federal government to

Fund Community Schools—Invest robustly in the Full-Service Community Schools Program, which provides schools an opportunity to respond to the immediate needs of students and families, support educators, and help meet the goal of 25,000 community schools.

States should:

Support community schools—Coordinate among agencies as well as regional and local leaders (such as county offices of education, state boards
of education, and local education agencies) to provide technical assistance for district community school initiatives and wellness programs. Technical assistance in this context includes the various supports needed to launch and sustain these efforts at scale, such as professional development and coaching for district and school staff, support for strategic planning, and partnership development that brings resources to schools (e.g., direct staffing, service provision and funding). States should also work in collaboration with state coalitions of stakeholders to develop their technical assistance framework and policy for funding supports.

Local governments should:

Support community schools—Pass resolutions in support of community schools and aligning city and county resources to assist with integrating mental and physical health services and programs for students and staff to make accessing such resources easier.

School Districts should:

Enable and support stakeholder collaboration—Welcome and create space for genuine collaboration and coordination among staff, families, administration and community partners. Local school boards can pass resolutions in support of community schools and establishing site-based response teams and wellness programs.

Districts and local unions should:

…work together to develop procedures and contract language regarding these policies. Local policies must reflect the data gathered from assets and needs assessments done in partnership with the community and staff and include professional development and staffing needs.

Virginia has 766 Title I schools. Given Virginia’s relative size, that seems to fit as roughly Virginia’s share of the AFT’s prescription for 25,000 community schools nationwide initially.

The AFT recommendations on community schools also seem to fit the definition of a series of miracles as a practical matter, but there they are in all of their complexity and expense.

B. Ensure school sites are safe and welcoming for all. Under this sub-recommendation

AFT teachers and school staff believe that improved workplace safety is an important strategy for recruitment and retention. This can include healthy environments, quality of physical spaces as well as safety from violence and equitable treatment for all. These are not only the working conditions of our members, but also the learning conditions of our students. Neither educators nor students should be asked to work or learn under conditions that are unsafe or unhealthy.

The capital repairs and asbestos removal recommended under this section must be done. Period.

They reiterate a recommendation for mandatory masking that many assess is proven to do students more harm than good. If you disagree with that, move on. It is not integral to this subject.

 Then we get to discipline.

Unfortunately, negative behaviors exist in many schools, leaving educators and students fearful for their safety. School discipline policies and practices often lead to the disruption of learning opportunities not just for those involved but for others in the classroom or building. Students who engage in negative behavior may be removed from class or school and are not able to keep pace with their peers, often leading to more negative behaviors.” [Emphasis added.]

Suspensions lead to dropouts, with students of color far more likely to receive harsher punishments like suspension than their white peers for similar offenses. In some cases, the juvenile justice system becomes involved, leaving students to carry a stigma of involvement with the legal system and an uphill climb to get out.

This defines well the tension between staff and student safety and the progressive reluctance to remove offenders from their class, much less the schools. The reluctance to report lawbreakers to the criminal justice authorities rounds out the package.

The specific solution recommended by AFT:

Enact school discipline models that support students

  • Disrupt the school to prison pipeline— Adopt responsive or restorative justice models and avoid involving law enforcement or the court unless no other alternative is possible.
  • Avoid punitive discipline practices— Educators should be trained to use crisis prevention intervention and restorative justice techniques to address disruptive or unsafe behavior whenever possible. Punitive discipline practices are not in the best interest of students and are not in keeping with the values of school districts.
  • Provide guidance on difficult conversations—Have clear guidance on how to handle difficult parent or student interactions in disciplinary situations and in any other challenging circumstances.

That brings us full circle to Virginia Beach Public Schools and the 55 other Virginia school divisions who have long adopted PBIS, the exact type of system of discipline recommended by AFT.

We saw the results of an immediate pre-COVID 2020 survey of Virginia Beach teachers after the adoption of PBIS. Many (38%) felt unsafe.

The numbers from the Virginia Beach discipline, crime, and violence (DCV) report from 2018-19 showed they had reason to be afraid.

AFT has no recommendation for what to do when systems like PBIS fail. Failure is not considered an option. Temporary setbacks are to be met with more money.

C.  Dealing with the “angry parents” issue. AFT opines that

Unions must create strong partnerships with communities and parents to understand and support issues within their schools.

No one would have an issue with that concept. The recommendations for its execution, however, raise some issues. For example, building such relationships are said to require yet more money, hiring and “policy choices.”

The national focus on family and community engagement is increasing, including the engagement requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act
and the Department of Education’s promotion of the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

However, building the capacity of educators and school staff must be a prerequisite for designing and implementing effective engagement strategies. So, too, must be building relationships of trust and respect between home and school, particularly in schools in culturally diverse or low-income neighborhoods.

The effectiveness of family and community engagement programs depends on the quality of the policy design and implementation. High-quality family engagement doesn’t happen by chance. It is the result of policy choices, resource allocations and technical assistance that support both staff capacity and student participation.

Bottom line. Each of the four major recommendations in Here Today, Gone Tomorrow has extensive and, together, unimaginably expensive implementation strategies requiring additional personnel unavailable in the workforce.

None of them recommend going back to traditional values, teaching and discipline methods.

All of them extend and double down on what we have seen over the past eight years of progressive reforms in Virginia schools. None of them address the failure of those reforms as implemented to improve school safety and discipline.

As I wrote above, there are some good ideas in there. Among them:

  • Increase planning time and opportunities to collaborate meaningfully with colleagues
  • Reduce paperwork

Other maybe not so good ideas:

  • The recommendation to reduce class size clashes with the lack of teachers which is the reason for Here Today, Gone Tomorrow in the first place.
  • They hate standardized testing, and want to eliminate it as a method of evaluating students and teachers. They want to “Focus educator and staff development and evaluation systems on the growth of students and educators” but not use standardized tests to measure student growth.

But don’t take my short review here as the full story. I urge you to read Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. It is 39 pages in very large font.

Form your own conclusions.