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«Behavioral Dissonance and Contested Classroom Spaces: Teachers’ and Students’ Negotiations of Classroom Disciplinary Moments by Rebecca Neal A ...»

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We know that misbehavior can eclipse positive classroom participation and generally result in behavioral referrals and other type of disciplinary actions that can lead to classroom exclusion, school denial, or any number of negative life consequences. As previously stated, it has been shown that not only are exclusionary school discipline practices, such as suspension and expulsion, associated with a higher likelihood of dropping out of school (Mendez, 2003), but also, according to the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University (2005), the greatest predictor of incarceration is a history of school disciplinary referrals. With so many children becoming involved in the juvenile justice system who have a history of school disciplinary referrals, this cycle of getting into trouble at school, being referred to the school administrative offices, receiving some type of behavioral sanction such as being dismissed, suspended or expelled, and dropping out of school has been described as the school-to prison pipeline (Wald & Losen, 2003). Topping the list are African American males who are considered the most likely group of any other ethnic or gender group to drop out of high school (Stearns & Glennie, 2006).

The consequences of lost schooling opportunities are of great magnitude. In addition to being involved with the courts and juvenile justice system, becoming incarcerated, or dropping out of school, many students represented in school disciplinary measures are ultimately placed in special education classes for students with E/BD. With that said, it can easily be concluded that a cycle of behavioral referrals, combined with special education identification and placement, adds to the permanency of students being removed from the general education environment by distancing students’ exposure to the general education curriculum (Skiba et al., 2002; Townsend, 2002).

Similar to school disciplinary practices, when compared to White students, African American students are 1.13 times more likely to be labeled LD, 2.41 times more likely to be identified as having intellectual disabilities, and 1.68 times more likely to be found eligible to receive E/BD services (Klinger et al., 2005). In addition to being more likely identified with special educational needs, African American students are also overrepresented in special education referrals and placement (Donovan & Cross, 2002).

For example, African American males in particular comprise approximately 17% of student in public schools but represent 41% of special education, of which 85% are male (Sen, 2006). These findings suggest that need for research to be done that can show linkages between culture, behavior and institutional practices (Mathur, 2007).

Special education identification involves access to an alternative curriculum and academic instruction often outside of the general education setting that can be in an isolated special education classroom with other special need students receiving similar services; this is particularly the case for students labeled E/BD. In many cases, when students are removed from the general classroom setting and denied access to the same educational opportunities as their peers, both short- and long-term learning opportunities are compromised. It is for this reason that inappropriate special education identification can be considered to adversely affect the educational outcomes for students, and also be viewed as a mechanism that can result in the students being distanced from exposure to the general education curriculum.

Whether the act of removing students from the general education setting is for minor behavioral issues, major disciplinary reasons, or to receive special education services, placement outside of the general education setting becomes a type of school sanctioned exclusion for students. In this way, the removal of students from the general education classroom, regardless of reason, potentially compromises students’ learning and contributes to the ongoing loss and denial of direct access to learning opportunities within the general education environment.

With that said, having discussed consequences of school discipline inequities, in the next section, I detail explanations represented in the literature surrounding school discipline inequities for African American and Hispanic students.

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There are at least three traditional explanations in the literature regarding students of color being so highly represented in school discipline: (a) cultural difference, (b) cultural deficit perspectives, and (c) institutional factors. The main points of each explanation are briefly discussed.

Cultural Differences: Spaces for Misunderstandings A possible reason for discipline inequities and students of color being issued behavioral referrals more often is because of cultural differences. Specifically, it is argued that teachers’ and school administrators’ backgrounds and experiences are substantially different from students of color’s ways of being, in that way, dissimilarities are seen as obstacles. This discontinuity can negatively shape educators’ perceptions of students and their cultural assets. The result often is a cultural divide manifested in a number of ways in which schools do not recognize students’ cultural backgrounds, behavioral codes, and community values as being important; or, find ways to build on students’ cultural assets. Cultural divides can produce a lens for teachers and school personnel to interpret students’ behavior, physical gestures and manner of speech as misconduct or behavior in need of correction and discipline.

Consequently, students may also interpret teachers and school personnel’s communication styles as one-sided, inflammatory or negatively judgmental.

When cultural differences act as a divide, they can adversely mediate teachers’ judgments of students’ use of language, movement style, and self-expression. In a study involving Latino students, Morris (2005) reported they were viewed as threatening and issued severe disciplinary consequences by teachers and school personnel. Along with this study, commonly expressed in the literature was the misjudgment and ill characterization of students of color. Other studies involving students of color also showed that teachers considered African American and Hispanic students to be deviant, deceptive and challenging to authority (Gregory & Weinstein, 2008). The argument could be made that these cultural differences mediate in some way the inequitable application of discipline sanctions.

The existence of cultural difference between students and teachers for the most part is inescapable, but these differences do not have to be insurmountable barriers.

Instead, cultural differences that exist in the classroom should be considered opportunities for teachers and students to work together in ways that teachers can be successful at teaching and students can be successful at academic and social learning.

A limitation of the cultural discontinuity hypothesis is that it tends to homogenize communities and populations, at the expense of not accounting for within group difference. Lacking in this explanation is that some student groups whose culture is different from a school’s culture (e.g., some Southeast Asian groups), are still successful and manage to do well at school.

Although cultural discontinuities between school and home expectations of students can inhibit social and academic success, that is not always the case. Teachers who strive to understand the cultural richness students of color embody acknowledge the importance of a students’ background. In making connections with students in ways that are culturally relevant to them, teachers can have a positive effect on student engagement and classroom participation (Howard, 2001).

Culture and cultural differences are multifaceted and complex. Culture and learning vary greatly from student to student and the existence of cultural differences is indisputable which at times complicates classroom learning, productivity and participation for students. Perhaps a greater limitation to cultural difference explanation is how culture is defined. Nieto (1999) considers culture to be a number of interrelated characteristics consisting of more than artifacts, traditions, and rituals. It is erroneous to assume that culture is static, fixed, and deterministic. A difficulty then in applying notions of cultural difference to explain students’ success or failure is that culture is dynamic, multifaceted, deeply embedded in context, and influenced by social factors (Nieto, 1999). With that said, an important aspect in students experiencing success at school is not cultural congruence or difference, but instead how culture is embraced - as a barrier, limitation, or opportunity for school attainment.

Another argument that questions the cultural difference hypothesis is that the notion of cultural difference is not as straightforward as some proponents of this explanation might suggest. For instance, Erickson (1996) referred to cultural differences as a border or a boundary and explained his analysis using Barth’s (1969) work on the reconceptualization of ethnicity. Following Barth, Erickson (1996) argued that individuals have the capacity to treat cultural differences as more or less problematic and that when differences are recognized, but not politicized, the advantage of one person over another does not occur. This way, cultural differences function as a mechanism that is treated as a boundary because it is not related to the exercise of power. On the other hand, cultural differences are treated as a border when differences are politicized, and thus power is used to identify such differences (Barth, 2000; Erickson, 1996). This is done when people considered to possess cultural traits (i.e., differences) are brought into question, and “relegated to a position of disadvantage in power relative to those who do not possess those [traits]” (Erickson, 1996, p. 294). Barth (2000) implied that the conditions under which cultural differences are treated as a border or boundary are dependent upon the interactions of people, and that affordances are created by social processes not by cognitive ability. Regarding discipline inequities, when the manner in which a student moves, (i.e., walks), speaks, hair style, physical dress is brought into question to the point that a school’s code of conduct rule is considered violated, differences in behavioral expressions are then treated as a border because school personnel exercised their power to construe cultural traits or practices of “the other” as problems or deficits that need to be controlled. On the contrary, if students did not receive a reprimand for these types of cultural expressions or consequences were not applied to control such cultural differences, then in that way, students’ cultural assets (or traits) were not politicized, and therefore, so called cultural differences were treated as a boundary because power was not exercised to position students as problematic.

McDermott and Gospodinoff (1981) also utilized Barth’s boundary-border distinction within school classrooms. They studied classroom interactions between first grade students and their teacher and concluded that the difficulties students sometimes experienced were caused by how students’ use of language and cultural assets were utilized and framed within certain situations (McDermott & Gospodinoff, 1981). It was concluded that although cultural differences existed between teachers and students, it was the interpretation of culture and how it was framed (as a border or boundary) that made the difference. Erickson and Shultz (1982) specified how cultural differences were treated in the classroom was dependent upon the presence or absence of a teacher-student relationship. This means that the crucial issue in classrooms is not the presence or absence of so called cultural differences, but rather in how culture is framed and how cultural assets are utilized, and to what degree cultural differences are viewed as a border or boundary (Erickson, 1996). For example, if two students are joking with one another or playing the dozens (see Abrahams, 1962), if treated as a border students’ actions could be interpreted as a verbal altercation or another type of disciplinary infraction. If, however, one understands certain cultural codes that are personally relevant to students, it would be understood that these students were engaging in acts of “signifying” (see e.g., Lee, 2007).

Nieto (2004) also explained that school policies and practices can contribute to inequities because policies can be grounded on certain cultural assumptions and thus, discriminate against particular groups of students. For example, African American students using a pic to style their hair is not an act of rebellion, but simply an expression of flair. The same is true for Hispanic students refraining from making eye contact at times; these students are not always engaging in unruliness, but rather looking downward as an act of respect. These types of cultural misinterpretations can lead to inequitable disciplinary action and it is for these reasons that school policies and practices can both inhibit or advance the educational success of students, thus being seen as unjust.

Cultural Deficit Perspectives: Spaces as Negative Judgment An alternative explanation of school discipline inequities is grounded in deficit thinking (Valencia, 2010). In this explanation, students of color are often viewed as inadequate, problematic, deficient, or possessing subordinate ways of knowing that contribute to their representation in school discipline. This is often translated into teacher and administrator biases and prejudices.

Deficit perspectives entail negative viewpoints and often consider students as damaged, insufficient, or lacking essential qualities and resources considered necessary to be successful at school academically and socially. A central tenet of deficit thinking is that cultures and environments different from what is considered mainstream (i.e., White and middle class) are inferior. This perspective attributes educational challenges and low school success or failure to genetics, linguistic deficits, and inabilities that reside within the student or his/her community.

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