Sparking a School Discipline Revolution

Interview with Amanda Kocon, Chief Strategy Officer, The New Teacher Project

After her long tenure as a teacher, social entrepreneur and district superintendent, Cami is now undertaking a very different kind of challenge: She’s launching the Discipline Revolution Project, a coalition of education reformers, from district and charter schools, who want to come together to consider how to change our approach to school discipline and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

What brought you to this issue? Why do we need a “revolution” when it comes to school discipline?

First, just look at the data. Fifty percent of school-based arrests are of African-American kids, but African Americans make up 15 percent of all students. Students with disabilities are between three and four times more likely to be suspended for the same offenses as their peers. LGBTQ students are disproportionally punished. In addition to being grossly unfair, this also has long-term consequences for kids and for schools: Students who are suspended are three times more likely than their peers to drop out of school, and three times as likely to be incarcerated. And that’s just the beginning of a life with limited options—in some cases spurred by well-meaning but completely misguided and inequitable school discipline policies and practices.

Despite these hard facts, changing school discipline hasn’t really been on the radar of education reformers. Collectively, we haven’t seen it as a priority or acknowledged our urgent responsibility to stop committing civil rights offenses, like those we lament in biased and life-ending juvenile and criminal justice systems. We’ve failed to see the connection between effective school discipline practices, improved and culturally competent school cultures, and—combined with rigorous content and great talent practices—radically improved student outcomes. We haven’t confronted the terrible consequences of punitive discipline, as well as the potential upside of doing things differently. We haven’t seen the shift away from antiquated discipline practices as mission-critical to our broader mandate to ensure excellence and equity for all kids.

​This is also very personal for me. I was the superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City for five years. Among many things, my portfolio included schools for kids who were incarcerated, as well as the one-year suspension centers. It was pretty hard to ignore the stark fact that we were serving almost exclusively African-American and Latinx boys, as well as a few African-American and Latinx girls—even though that does not represent the demographics of the city.

​I would look at the kids’ files to see why they were there, and would see things like a three-month suspension for “using a rubber band as a weapon.” I also saw that these young people don’t tend to graduate. The idea is that they’re supposed to go to the suspension centers to get all these services and then come back to school. But they don’t get the services and the stigma is impossible to overcome, so they come back behind. I saw the same kids on Rikers Island that I saw in the suspension centers, all the time.

What’s the plan for the Discipline Revolution Project? How are you trying to help?

​I think there’s growing recognition in the education community, both from charter and district leaders, that we’ve helped create the school-to-prison pipeline and it is up to us to dismantle it. But we can’t just be against biased, punitive discipline without articulating what we are moving toward. We’re in a moment when many leaders are eager to tackle this issue, but they don’t have easy access to resources or practical ideas to figure out where to start. So I think there’s a real opportunity to push the conversation forward and do so in a way that helps people embrace practical, albeit difficult, new approaches.

We’ve created what we call a “discipline equity framework,” which summarizes the best of what we know in anti-bias, culturally responsive work, trauma-informed work, and social-emotional learning and supports. The Discipline Revolution Project is about much more than changing discipline policies—it is about empowering and inspiring young people to develop healthy habits and be their best selves by ensuring they connect with empathetic, skilled adults who personalize their approach to student support and learning. It’s also about helping adults respond to incidents in ways that help young people learn from their mistakes and build strong peer cultures of accountability with love.

​We’ve summarized complex research and promising practices we’ve seen in action so principals, district leaders, CMO leaders, funders, advocates, and other school-based partners can download all of it in one place. We’re learning that there’s a lot of need for ongoing support and technical assistance. We’re in the process of building more infrastructure so we can do more research and provide deeper training and technical assistance at the local level. I really think education reform leaders are eager to get out of the finger-wagging space to work across traditional lines that divide us—particularly charter versus district—to solve problems around equity that plague us all.

Do charter schools have a particular role to play in this revolution?

​100 percent, no question. Charters and charter networks are critical to this dialogue because they have more flexibility regarding staffing, money, and ability to move quickly. For example, there are at least three networks I can think of that are completely re-thinking their approach to school culture. They’re thinking deeply about all the things they have done around schoolwide rituals and rules, and how they might be missing the mark. They’re working to encourage students to take ownership over their actions, and are asking students about whether they feel loved and understood by their teachers.

Now, we should be clear that traditional district schools need to grapple with this problem every bit as much as charter schools do. And just like in almost every other aspect of running a school, some charters do a better job than others, just like some districts do a better job than others. So it’s not an issue of culpability. But I do think the charter sector is uniquely suited to try new, innovative approaches to discipline and student supports that we need, and that’s why I think it’s so important they’re at the table and leading.

Based on all the research and promising practices you’ve seen, what’s the basic shift you think schools need to make on discipline?

​With discipline, our instinct is to admonish or punish a kid if they’re not compliant. Punishments can be big things like suspending a kid for a week, or small things like checkmarks and verbal reprimands every time a student steps out to the right or the left.

We want to move toward thinking of discipline as a way of practicing something until you master it—more like a disciplined athlete or artist. In that context, “disciplined” means someone who tries and works hard in a structured, focused way that shows perseverance and commitment.

We want adults to teach kids purposeful habits, as opposed to teaching compliance. At a macro level, that’s going to push us to do all sorts of things differently—not just discipline. It’s going to force us to think about how we support adults in schools to build deep, trusting, and empathetic relationships with kids. Empathetic relationships between adults and students have been proven to be one of the best indicators of success for children. This requires adults to deeply understand what makes each kid tick, what triggers them, and what motivates them to change and grow.

Frankly, shifting away from punitive discipline will force us to get better at encouraging kids to build the skills they need to succeed in the long term. We have to acknowledge that kids are going to challenge authority; that’s sort of their job. We have to respond with developmentally appropriate, purposeful actions—so the kid is held accountable in a way that helps them learn and grow, as opposed to just learning that they should continually buck authority, or that compliance is the only way to be in good graces with adults.

So this is as much a shift in philosophy as a change to any particular practices.

​Right, that’s where the “revolution” idea comes from. We need to change the way we’re thinking about discipline 180 degrees, not 10 or 20 degrees.

Can you talk more about what restorative practices are, and how they fit into this?

​Originally, restorative practices were rituals that brought together the person who perpetrated a crime with the victims of that crime. Restorative practices were leading to pretty amazing results in terms of recidivism rates, but also in terms of the well-being of both the victims and perpetrators of crimes. Some police departments started experimenting with these practices, and eventually some schools.

There are schools in Newark that use restorative practices, not just with young people, and not just in classrooms, but also at community forums. In our high schools, we brought in proctors, school safety agents, student leaders, teachers, administrators and others together to be trained on restorative circles and restorative practices, so that everybody was singing from the same songbook in terms of how they were approaching the work. It had a tremendous impact on more than the obvious things like violent incidents and reduced suspensions, but also on some of the intangibles, like how people treat each other.

​Having said all that, it’s only one part of what needs to happen for us to move away from punitive discipline. There’s a whole host of other things, like how teachers build relationships with students. And of course, the best way to prevent misbehavior in the first place is high-quality, relevant, and engaging lessons.

Can you give some examples of positive changes you’ve seen?

​I’ve seen several schools, charter and district, form student support teams with adults with different skill sets, like social workers, teachers, administrators, and peer coordinators. These teams create a safe place for kids to talk before they reach the point of crisis.

​There’s also an increasing number of schools doing culture and climate audits, asking students about their experiences and using that data to make changes. Districts are also rethinking the language they use to recruit teachers, to ensure that they’re sending the message that teaching is about building deep and trusting relationships and coaching kids on their non-academic skills as much as their academics.

I’ve also seen some great therapeutic learning centers, which are safe spaces where kids can go and participate in affinity groups, counseling, and student-led discussions. I’m optimistic about what we can achieve in this area because I’ve seen the needle move already.

But again, this is much bigger than implementing any specific practice. When you take a hard look at the data on school discipline, you see that it’s an overlooked symptom of a familiar problem: There’s a whole group of kids that, despite our best efforts, we are not serving well at scale. They tend to have one, if not all, of the following characteristics: They’re students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students living in extreme poverty, students who are growing up in foster care, students who have a parent who is incarcerated, or they’re connected to the child welfare system in some way. We like to say we’re working for “all kids,” but we don’t always act in ways that are inclusive of our student populations or that help all students excel.

​Even the best among us—the best superintendents, the best charter operators—if you just look at the data, that’s the reality. I believe that while we’re calling this the Discipline Revolution Project, it’s really about School Reform 2.0. I think it’s going to show results with a group of kids that we continue to fail.

Resolving the Charter School Debate

By Cami Anderson

The debate over the future of our nation’s education system continues to divide the country. On one side we have advocates of market-disrupting charters looking to eliminate the bureaucracies they believe inhibit education. On the other, public school activists are committed to preserving a system that has failed many students for decades. There is, however, a third option that would allow both charter and traditional public schools to thrive and serve students with diverse needs across educational levels.

​Cities like Newark, N.J.; Washington; and Denver are pursuing groundbreaking approaches by embracing both charters and traditional schools. Leaders from both sides have begun to step up and assume collective responsibility for providing a quality education to all students, regardless of which school they attend. They are building a mixed education market that draws on economic principles of competition and our country’s founding commitment to equity so that all families have access to a variety of great educational choices.

​The original concept behind charters was sound: Create new options in poor communities with low-performing schools so children have an immediate chance for success. Charter schools would be held accountable for results and their leaders freed from antiquated policies and practices. Charter proponents hoped this flexibility would create the conditions for higher student achievement outside of district schools and generate promising practices for reform more broadly.

Image: Jared Boggess

And the initial plan worked. In places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, high-performing charters serving student populations similar to traditional schools delivered radically better results. Excited by early successes, reformers and advocates pushed for more charters, faster. Private-sector funders cheered because it meant injecting competition into a broken monopoly.

​But charters are not a silver bullet, and their expansion can create unintended consequences for communities. In my time as the superintendent of schools in Newark, I came face to face with the realities of aggressive charter-market-share expansion. While high-performing charters offered better options to lottery winners, their rapid growth had the potential to make things worse for families that lost.

An analysis for our One Newark plan projected that over the course of seven years, charters would grow from serving 5 percent of students in 2010 to 40 percent of students in 2017. This trend threatened to leave more than half of Newark’s students in dysfunctional schools that were, at the time, losing students and resources, while being staffed by the most senior—but not always effective—teachers.

When students leave a traditional school to attend a charter, the money goes with them, along with jobs and contracts that sustain fragile economies and fuel local politics. My team and I needed to find a way to help charter schools increase their positive impact while lifting up traditional schools so that all of Newark’s students and neighborhoods thrived.

“Charters are not a silver bullet, and their expansion can create unintended consequences for communities.”

The first step was to level the playing field so everyone had an equal chance to get into a good school. Traditionally, each charter ran its own lottery, which resulted in confusion and difficulty for already-burdened families. We created a one-stop enrollment system that every school—charter and district alike—was required to participate in, giving all families access to the same options.

​This universal-enrollment system, staffed with family advocates, began to change the dynamic that favored charter-school-lottery winners and left everyone else—often those schools with the fewest resources—with the leftovers.

​Next, we worked to give district schools the same flexibility and tools that allow charters to succeed. We overhauled our teacher-evaluation system to retain high performers and let go of low performers. Excellent teachers were included in the process, and passionate leaders with entrepreneurial spirits and effective management skills were installed in schools. Our focus on best-in-class training and coaching encouraged teachers and leaders to move the district toward the future.

​Finally, we sought to end the divide between the district and charters by aligning charter-growth plans with community needs. We asked charters to take over schools in the toughest neighborhoods with high family demand, instead of growing one grade level at a time in new buildings where they got the best real estate deals. Charters agreed, renovated historic buildings, and kept the traditional school names. Schools that would otherwise have closed, hurting our poorest neighborhoods and making politics even tougher, are now community anchors.

​Our mission from the outset was to ensure 100 percent of schools in Newark were excellent, located in thriving neighborhoods, and supporting all students. The early results are encouraging. Graduation rates are climbing. Overall enrollment is up for the first time in over a decade—a critical sign of health. A recent study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education showed that 40 percent of Newark students are enrolled in “beat the odds” schools—those that outpace demographically similar schools statewide—far above the average of only 8 percent across the 50 cities studied.

​Even with this progress, cities like Newark and states like New Jersey have miles to go to truly create the charter-like conditions necessary for district schools to compete. This will take courageous public policy and leaders to completely rethink laws governing tenure, civil service, and service contracts. Ironically, those organizing to protect a broken status quo are creating the very circumstances that make charters feel like the only option for advocates and families who want results now.

​Cities and states across the country can embrace and build on Newark’s example to foster a diversified market with more choice, higher quality, equal access, and a community focus.

​The mixed-market approach will work only if we redefine success. It is not about expanding charters or saving districts. We all need to stop the polarizing discussion and come together to create a blended model, a third way, of giving all students in all neighborhoods access to the best education possible, rather than treating children like pawns in our political games.

Ms. Anderson is a former superintendent of Newark Public Schools (2011-15) and former superintendent of Alternative High Schools and Programs in New York City (2006-11). This article originally appeared in Education Week.

School Reform 2.0 — Educational Excellence AND Equity

By Cami Anderson

I didn’t have the most conventional upbringing. As one of 12 kids (now with 15 nieces and nephews and growing), I know that my family has always turned heads on volume alone. If you add to the mix that nine of my siblings are adopted, most of us are within four years of each other in age, and our family portraits represents the best of our country’s diversity, this has shaped my views as a person, educator, and activist. Sports and substance abuse, racism and roses, homophobia and honesty, incarceration and ice cream, poverty and privilege, trauma and joy were all frequent topics of discussion at our weekly family meetings. Members of my family experienced school differently, often based on how much adults perceived they could achieve. What would it take to build a school system where all of my siblings and their kids would thrive? This question drives me to this day and pushes me to ask myself and other reformers what the next phase of the work to ensure excellence and equity should look like, based on what we have — and have not — tackled in the past 20 years of reform.

​Recently, the education community has been barraged by sobering — but not surprising — news. In recent national studies, we (again) learned that students who drop out of high school do not have access to 21st-century jobs. We (again) learned about how homeless students fall between the cracks and how schools struggle to support them or, worse, don’t even know they sleep in a car. We (again) learned that students who were adopted or grow up in foster care, even in wealthy communities, experience more challenges in school than their peers, as issues around healthy identity collide with systems ill-equipped to support nontraditional families. We (again) learned that students of color, who are suspended at rates far higher than their peers for the same infractions, are far more likely to leave school and become incarcerated for major portions of their lives. We (again) learned that students who identify as LGBTQ are less likely to graduate or have a positive school experience.

​Despite our best efforts, there are too many children whom schools and school systems, charter and district, are struggling to reach. They are students whom adults perceive as “hard to serve.” Far from being the great equalizer they can be, schools are too often the places where kids facing the most significant risk factors have the worst experiences. Challenges these students experience in life, often because of the failures of other systems like child welfare and criminal justice, are exacerbated instead of ameliorated in their school experience.

​Undeniably, as a reform community, we have created more excellent schools serving poor students. But, equally undeniably, we have not changed the hard fact that if you are a kid facing significant risk factors, you are not likely to excel. More deeply diagnosing the root of problems is the first step to effecting meaningful solutions. But, as one of my favorite coaches used to say, “So what? Now what?”

​If we truly believe that all students, regardless of their circumstances, deserve excellent schools that give them the widest range of life options, then we have to do more than admire the problem.

Four priorities

​School leaders and reformers must be willing to ask ourselves tough questions and rethink what we are doing and not doing to truly support all students, especially those caught in circumstances that make school harder. I suggest we look unsparingly at how we approach our work along four dimensions: people, practices, policies, and power.

​As a reform community, we have embraced a simple but important truth: People matter. We’ve maintained a laser-like focus on recruiting, selecting, and coaching excellence in the classroom because we know the single most important school-based factor is teacher quality. As was the case in our groundbreaking contract in Newark, we’ve created incentives to retain and reward the best teachers while fairly moving out those we wouldn’t want teaching our own children. We’ve changed the definition of what it means to be a principal and embraced the critical role assistant principals, other administrators, and teacher leaders play in building excellent schools.

​But in order to really reach all students, we have to make sure we are giving teachers the tools to support students’ academic and social and emotional growth. We need to celebrate and develop teachers who build deep relationships with their students, who know what motivates and triggers them, and who form true partnerships with the primary person in their family, whether that is a parent, grandparent, neighbor, uncle, foster parent, or case worker. Great teachers skillfully plan rigorous lessons and know their students as unique individuals. It’s also critical that our teaching population better mirror the diversity of our students.

​We need an equally deep focus on how we recruit, select, coach, and evaluate guidance counselors and social workers. Non-teaching staff, from counselors to peer coaches to teaching assistants, who help students set and attain personal goals, are critical. Adults whose full-time role is to support the social and emotional growth of students must be experts at developing trust to help students reflect openly on their hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. They need to be highly skilled, for example, in motivational interviewing techniques to help students persist in the face of obstacles. Even the most empathetic and dedicated educators have blind spots about how students who are struggling experience unconscious biases and low expectations. All adults need high-quality professional development experiences that help put them in the shoes of students and how they perceive school.

​As a reform community, we celebrate practices that we equate with high-performing schools. We celebrate carefully planned and purposefully reinforced school cultures that have “no excuses” for students to operate below grade level. High-performing schools have rigorous curricula, carefully planned units and lessons, meaningful ways to measure student progress, and time to adjust teaching where needed. Adults are accountable for upholding school values and continuing to perfect their craft. Leaders sweat the small stuff and create environments that communicate respect for families and students.

​Effective school-wide practices that result in tightly managed school instruction, data, and school culture should be maintained, but they will be insufficient to reach all students. Teachers need tools to prevent students from being off-task and to redirect them in non-punitive ways when they are. School-wide procedures and rituals must repair trust while helping students learn from missteps and engage in reflection to keep growing, rather than simply trying to remove the problem, and this extends beyond individual classrooms. Curricula, standards, lessons plans, and qualitative assessments focused on teaching productive habits of mind must be as rigorous, thoughtful, and valued as those teaching algebra.

​Student support teams should push adults with different roles to find new, innovative strategies to reach students well before they are critically off-track, behaviorally or academically. When students begin to struggle, adults should have structures and protocols to ask themselves and each other, “What have we missed?” or “What specific strategies and interpersonal approaches will coach this student to peak performance?” rather than “How can we describe what is wrong with this student in greater detail?” or “How can we punish this student more?”

​Therapeutic learning centers should be special places where students engage in one-on-one coaching or clinical services. Student-led groups and activities should provide students with opportunities to lead and see their impact, regardless of their personal circumstances. Memorandums of agreement should spell out when and how law enforcement, family support, child welfare, and probation staff partner with school staff to make sure interagency gaps aren’t making things worse for our most vulnerable students and families. School teams must have the skill, will, and capacity to operationalize a new set of tasks too many previously thought was “not my job.”

​We have to take a hard look at policies that have had some positive effects but also some unintended consequences. High schools should be accountable for graduation rates. But, we should focus on publishing five- and six-year graduation rates so schools retain students and persist in lifting them to a level of academic competence they need to access 21st-century jobs, rather than just incentivizing them to coach students to pass the GED to grow their graduation rate. (A lot of students, by the way, call the GED the “Good Enough Diploma,” and scores of research shows that students with GEDs have worse life outcomes than students who drop out.)

​Our goal should absolutely remain to get every student to proficiency or above on rigorous standards — and let them decide if they want to go to college after they have the skills to access the full range of life options. But we should stop publishing “percent proficient” by itself without any growth data. I have seen firsthand the powerful incentive this creates for schools to retain students within striking distance of the proficiency line and to find ways to eject those really far behind. Getting students from their own 20-yard line to the other team’s 20-yard line is harder than getting a student from the other team’s 20-yard line into the end zone. Our current proficiency-based accountability systems only count when we score — which means we are ignoring a lot of students while celebrating false gains.

​Every city in America should publish a “school mobility rate,” overall and by school, so the public can plainly see how many students who started the school year in one school actually finish the school year there. As educators, we often tell ourselves that “we don’t have what it takes to serve this student” or “this student could use a change of scenery” or “this student needs to get away from his friends — they’re a bad influence.” The truth is that every time a student who is struggling moves to another school, that student becomes three to five times as likely to not finish school at all, and we know what that means for later life options. This is not a “charter problem” — it’s an education problem. Too many students are moving from school to school, a practice that makes it more difficult to help all kids, particularly our most vulnerable, reach excellence, and we do not focus on the epidemic of mobility enough.

​Finally, we have to get real about who has power to influence systems. Too often, the loudest microphone is held by a vocal and connected educator or parent who is resistant to enrolling a student returning from Rikers, an openly transgender student, a 15-year-old girl who is pregnant, or a magnet school student who is perceived to not have “earned” a spot. Students and families who are more marginalized, therefore, are too often on the receiving end of enrollment, policy, and other practices in systems and schools that families with more power would never accept. Equally problematic, some local and national funders are so focused on having more schools with more students reading at proficiency that this has eclipsed equity, fixating on student growth, and supporting the hardest-to-serve students. Most troubling, some of the most innovative and successful change agents in education do not think they should have to focus on what too many regard as “niche issues,” like serving students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students who are returning to school, or students who are growing up in a nontraditional family. I would argue that truly understanding these issues is what will help us get to the next level of education excellence for all students as well our most struggling communities. Somehow, when it comes to serving our toughest students, reformers who advocate for more charters by harping on the fact that districts are irreparably broken still want to relegate students to subpar “alternative schools.”

​If Reform 1.0 was about creating more great schools and proof points, I think we can safely say we’ve done that — and we should all celebrate the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here. I remain a fierce believer in the positive impact of high standards, fair choice systems, rigorous curricula, top-notch talent strategies, and high-quality accountability data — and would not support any new direction that walks back the key lessons we’ve learned on these fronts.

​But I believe we should embrace Reform 2.0: a movement to ensure excellence is really reaching all students. In my estimation, that’s going to require some serious rethinking of people, practices, policies, and power. I wonder sometimes if we are as committed to equity and serving all kids as we are to saying we have more excellent schools or even preserving choice. I wonder what it will take for me to sleep well knowing that my son and all of my nieces and nephews — white, black, brown, academically gifted, those with learning disabilities, transgender, differently abled, compliant, challenging, and everything in between — attend schools that deliver on their potential.

​For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.

4 Reasons Community Service Should Be Part of Every School’s Design

By Cami Anderson

Photo: Courtesy Points of Light

Some of Rose Farah’s greatest childhood memories are visiting her father’s family in Syria. So, she was particularly devastated when the refugee crisis escalated and made national news. Images of homelessness, hunger, and desperation kept her up at night.

​Feeling a connection to the suffering, the 18-year-old high school senior did what so many of us think about but rarely do: She took action, successfully organizing kids and adults at her school (New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart) to raise funds for school-aged Syrian refugees that would enable them to attend boarding schools.

​Rose says she couldn’t imagine her life without school, and she wanted to do her part to ensure that this crisis wouldn’t divert the next generation of Syrians from educational opportunities. Setting small and steady goals, Rose helped change the life trajectory of 18 students — as well as her own.

Last week, Rose and I were honored by The Points of Light Foundation and its local partner, GenerationOn, both organizations that support charitable individuals young or old who engage in meaningful service efforts. I was not only moved by Rose’s story on a personal level, but hearing her reflections served as a reminder of why educators must focus more attention on giving students meaningful, self-directed opportunities to serve others.

​After all, both research and practice show:

​1. Empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others, is teachable; not only is it a critical skill that helps kids succeed, but also means they are likely to contribute positively to their communities.

​Paul Tough’s book summarizing decades of achievement motivation theory, finally has leaders in education reform talking about “social and emotional learning.” As a community, we are realizing what great teachers have always known: we can and must teach “non-cognitive” skills like empathy as purposefully, thoughtfully, and methodically as we teach Algebra. Service opportunities can anchor lessons in empathy.

​2. Efficacy, or believing that the results of one’s actions can have a positive, immediate and long-term impact, motivates kids and helps them preserve through difficult situations.

​Gallup and other survey research shows that students who feel like they are heard, who have an opportunity to lead, and who believe they can impact their world stay in school longer, graduate at higher rates, and ultimately have more economic success. For many years, educators have sought to take principles of youth development and put them in action in high schools. When they do, they get better outcomes. Supporting young people in identifying causes they are interested in and working to fix them should be an important part of school.

​3. All young people, especially those who have struggled or are currently struggling, have something to give — and have a perspective that leads to innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

​Too often we think of service as something people of means do “for” people without means. This mentality means we fail to cultivate the extraordinary leadership and social justice skills of kids growing up in poor communities. Young people who have had to overcome significant obstacles often bring persistence, creativity, and dedication to tackling tough issues. Meaningful service opportunities should be made available to all kids.

4. Service provides opportunities for shared experiences that allow kids (and adults for that matter) to work across identity lines — lines that too often have us interacting exclusively with people who share our race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and/or neighborhood.

​The army trains soldiers to think of their enemy as “other”. Most “isms” are exacerbated when people stay in their silos and do not develop meaningful relationships with people they define as “other”. Service opportunities can take you places and have you interacting with people outside of your immediate circle — and it is critical for educators to cultivate opportunities for young people to thrive in those situations. Some research shows that the ability to thrive in diverse groups is as valuable in terms of access to 21st century jobs as high levels of literacy and numeracy.

This month, we lost another of America’s great social justice warriors, Muhammed Ali, who famously said “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Service is humbling: you often learn more that you give. As educators, we must find ways to give all students, not just students like Rose who are lucky enough to go to great schools, the opportunity to give back, realize their full potential, and see their impact.

​For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.

The Left-Right School Discipline Debate Misses the Point. We Need a Third Way.

Imagine a small math classroom filled with exuberant 12-year-olds. They are loud and engaged. One group is working on algebra and comparing notes to solve a problem. Another group is using a self-paced computer program to practice foundational math skills that an assessment indicated to their teacher they needed. A third is being guided by the teacher through a problem requiring complex equations.

​Occasionally, one of the groups erupts in laughter; you might hear someone blurt out, “I am never going to get this” — only to go right back to work. A chime signals the time to change activities; student captains keep the transition smooth. There’s a little horseplay and poking, but within minutes, students are at their stations enthusiastically tackling a new task.

​The scene could be an elite private school, but it’s actually a crowded sixth-grade classroom in one of the country’s poorest ZIP codes. When you visit, you don’t wonder if the teacher can “control” the class or question if poor kids can succeed at high academic levels.

​Instead, you meet a teacher who visits students’ homes and gets to know what makes each child tick. She can vividly describe their dreams, what motivates and triggers each one, how she helps them identify those patterns for themselves. She can talk about the systems and rituals she constructs with students and how she puts them in charge of their learning and behavior.

​She’d invite you to observe class meetings and restorative circles, where students repair relationships and personal damage when the students challenge authority and show disrespect, as they inevitably will, even in this carefully built community. For her and the mission-driven school team she is part of, student discipline means coaching children to develop the habit of persisting to master a skill, however hard.

​Others in her school, from the principal to teachers and school safety agents, will tell you discipline doesn’t mean punishing young people who fail to comply.

​Much has been written lately about whether schools should be called to task for how they discipline kids. Civil rights groups say punitive discipline is racially biased and disproportionately pushes kids of color into an even more racist judicial system that severely limits their life options. They’re right: 10 percent of all high schoolers are suspended; among male African Americans, the figure is about one-third.

​Nearly half of school-based arrests are of African-American students (though they are nowhere near 50 percent of students). Being suspended makes you three times as likely to drop out and three times as likely to become incarcerated.

​Some conservative publications and think tanks, such as the Manhattan Institute, which recently published a study about school discipline, argue that limiting punitive discipline leads to lower teacher morale. To some extent, they are right. Teacher surveys in New York show that some teachers and students report that their schools feel less safe since central administrators have made it much harder for teachers to remove kids from their class.

But the debate about discipline among adults, as it’s being argued, mistakes the response for the cure. Simply decrying the injustice of disproportionate suspensions doesn’t help kids, but suggesting schools will descend into chaos if we stop suspending “bad kids” is worse. We need a third way that integrates a school’s approach to discipline with high-quality, culturally competent school cultures, teaching and learning practices, and student supports, and that builds the capacity of schools to make good on this approach.

​Here’s an analogy. For much of my childhood, I was a competitive swimmer. I didn’t win a lot, though, because my flip-turn was too slow. My coach saw that I took an extra stroke, and though we tried to fix it, my times stagnated. He blamed himself: He’d been too technical, faulted me publicly, didn’t study enough tape. Or maybe he needed to motivate me to work harder.

​In the end, it was all of these. We kept at it and I became much faster. I never heard him say, “Too bad Cami didn’t get the flip-turn gene” or “I’ll bench her if she doesn’t improve that flip-turn.”

​My swim coach and the math teacher I observed have a lot in common. They believe habits can be changed and that it’s their job to figure out how for children who can’t do it alone. They constantly think about adaptations that may help students achieve peak performance. They both have high expectations, but they’re able to seed them by putting kids at the helm.

​We would never say of a child that “he just can’t learn how to read”; similarly we shouldn’t wonder whether young people can learn self-control, how to de-escalate anger, resolve conflict, and focus. We need instead to think of how to effectuate that growth, as if we were coaches of the academic, social, and emotional skills of our kids, even when they challenge us.

​Having taught young people who were suspended, run suspension centers, overseen the schools on Rikers Island, and been in many school lockdowns, I know this is a difficult shift. It takes more than a pious call to “decrease suspensions” or a reliance on individual acts by heroic teachers.

Improving school culture is much more demanding as well as inseparable from the rest of school life. We need to systematically rethink everything we do — from how teachers are trained and supported to how we report and learn from classroom and school-based incidents. We need to take a hard look at whether we are building school cultures that empower all students to perform hard work that is meaningful to them. We need systems that ensure that students who challenge authority or hurt others are coached, not pathologized.

​Most of all, regardless of how difficult it is to reach every student, including those who make bad choices, we have to stop weighing whether or not the status quo is acceptable. When the United States of America has more African Americans incarcerated than were enslaved in 1850, everyone who contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline is either part of the problem or part of the solution.

​For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.

Persistence: Reflections of a Life-Long Activist

Spring of 1992, I suffered a serious back injury. It was my second year on the University of California at Berkeley’s crew team and I was sitting in the front seat (“stroking”) the Junior Varsity 8 for a dual with the University of Washington. It was an important race. The 6’2” stroke of the Varsity 8 crossed the finish line and quickly headed to the dock so my crew could jump in for our race. We frantically switched places leaving no time to lower my rigger (the arm that holds the oar) before hastening to the starting line despite being more than 6 inches shorter than my teammate. Crew “duals” are brutal. On a good day with the best of equipment you experience seven to eight minutes of excruciating pain and oxygen debt that requires mental toughness and physical persistence that, despite playing many competitive sports growing up, I haven’t experienced in any other setting. About 3,200 agonizing strokes later, I tried to celebrate our personal-best time but was in too much pain to enjoy it.

Why such a tight turn around for our crews? Despite rowing for a school with alumni patrons like Dean Witter and generous sports budgets, the women’s team only had one boat modern enough to give us a chance of winning. We had an incredible and improbable season, but my back was in terrible shape forcing me to sit out several races and battle pain. I was frustrated. Why did the men’s team have a full complement of boats — any one of which was “race quality” — while we, despite training just as hard and getting better results, slept on the floor of alumni houses when we traveled, worked out in an outdated and unsanitary gym, and paid for race gear out of our own pockets?

I thought long and hard and then did what I had been taught to do — take action.

My Mother is an “activist.” Raising 12 children — nine adopted and three biological — she has always been a trailblazer, personally and professionally. She has long believed that adoptions should be open and that interracial adoption can work as long as white adoptive parents are willing to confront their own privileges and the impact of racism on children of color. She’s been outspoken on prison reform, the role an incarcerated parent can play in their child’s life, and the responsibility of adoptive parents to remain open-hearted to the birth families of their adoptive children. My father began his career as an organizer in Watts after the riots. Tapped when he was just 40-years-old to serve as Mayor Tom Bradley’s Community Development Department head, he has been at the forefront of economic justice for low-income communities, neighborhood revitalization, and the role of government to empower communities. He “retired” from the city a few years ago to return to organizing in Watts.

My folks modeled a fierce focus on equity and justice. Equally important, they taught me to question everything including sacred cows and conventional wisdoms in pursuit of what is possible rather than simply what is. They encouraged me to speak truth to power, to be aware of systemic oppression, to be part of the solution and to lead with values and heart.

So, as a college student, I organized a group of female athletes to challenge the university on the basis of gender inequity. We had amazing mentors — my aunt who was a university employee and is a sports enthusiast, the Title IX officer for the University of California, a free-lance journalist who knew a lot about the Title IX law and movement. After a thoroughly-researched, public letter threatening a lawsuit was distributed far and wide, dozens of meetings, and several news stories — the university agreed to massive changes. Female and male sports budgets merged, across all sports, and head coaches were mandated to ensure equity. Literally, overnight, we bought three new boats, moved in to share the men’s boat house, gained access to the best weight rooms at the university, and began to fly — instead of driving 15 hours — to races.

All these years later, everyone involved takes great pride in that victory, and we should. But, that’s not actually what I think is interesting about this story. Persisting to demand equity was one of the hardest things I have ever worked with a group of people to accomplish. And I learned some tough lessons.

Many of my own teammates turned against me. This was shocking to me. I was certain everyone would join in. Who wouldn’t want to fight for what we deserved? Some of my teammates expressed concerns about “raising our head” too much for fear of angering the men’s team or generally appearing to be agitators. Female athletes were friends with male athletes and to say that is was unpopular to point out that what had been happening for decades wasn’t fair is an understatement. Others feared the consequences of equity. We prided ourselves on doing well despite being underfunded. What if we actually had what we needed? Well then there would be pressure to win.

In many instances, “natural allies” turned against us because of parochial interests and fear. Other women’s teams opted not to get involved. They assumed this was a “zero sum” game where some teams would lose and others would win. If push came to shove, they thought they might lose more than they currently had even if what they had wasn’t just. Some worried about being too loud especially because they believed the university would never change, so why take the risk? Many said they were “with us in spirit” but refused to sign their name or speak out because of fear of reprisal and/or concern that they would have stuck their neck out to no avail.

Intimidation was not subtle, nor was the use of power to try to silence our complaints.

University officials took me and several members of our coalition to the University Club to tell us to be “very careful” about our accusations. Coaches from the men’s team issued stern warnings about how I was going to cause irreparable harm to the program and that I would alienate all of my “friends” who were male athletes. Rumors abounded about crew, as a sport, being cut altogether — or that private funding from individual donors didn’t “count” as inequity. These falsehoods were so often and strategically repeated, that many began to take them as fact.

Many benefited from the status quo and were angry about the loss of it — and therefore attacked my character to try to discredit me as a change agent. Upon receiving a scholar-athlete award, the men’s coach (after effusively introducing the male recipient), said of me: “We all know Cami, she is — well — vocal,” (and he didn’t mean it as a compliment). Several people spread rumors about my motivation suggesting my advocacy for equity was a secret plot to get our coach fired and make a name for myself. By the end of the campaign, I truly did not recognize the person — the character — they were making me out to be.

Ironically, the politics of gender played out in a very overt way. Stereotypes abounded. On the one hand I was a “whiner”, a complainer who was so weak that I had to fight battles through letters. On the other hand, I was too aggressive, opinionated and unyielding in my beliefs — the way women who are persistent and goal-oriented are often branded when men with the same qualities are lauded.

Nearly 25 years later, and in honor of women’s history month, I find myself reflecting on those lessons very deeply — the ones I learned from my parents and the ones I learned from the school of hard knocks. As a college student, I found all of this pretty devastating and certainly did not handle every twist and turn with sound strategy and grace. But, our coalition recovered from mistakes and persisted towards resolving a critical issue. And we were blessed to stand on the shoulders of activists who pushed gender equity before us and mentors who helped us stay the course.

As Superintendent of Newark Public Schools (NPS), I am no stranger to controversy and feel many of the dynamics I experienced in my Title IX days — and throughout my life as an activist — are at play in the fight for educational equity (in Newark and nationally). Vilifying the leader is a way of discrediting them and preventing them from earning the trust they need to lead. Fear, intimidation, and gender politics are alive and well. More people benefit from a broken public education system than may otherwise be obvious including people who should be “natural allies” for change. In the face of abject failure, even mediocrity is celebrated and challenging that is difficult. It is wildly unpopular to say what we have been doing is failing and even more controversial to make bold proposals that challenge sacred cows — and adult interests embedded in the status quo.

In the face of recent challenges in our quest to ensure 100 excellent schools in Newark, I remember all of these tough lessons. I reflect on all of what I have learned as a life-long activist. We — the incredible principals, community leaders and NPS staff members who are demanding that we do better for our kids, also garner strength and resolve from students who come to school every day in the face of extraordinary obstacles. We remain focused, reflective on what more we can do to build a diverse coalition, and completely, unapologetically committed to our ambitious goals. If our students can persist to achieve academic excellence, we can persist to deliver on their potential.

A version of this article appears on The Huffington Post.

Cami Anderson Talks Ed Reform, Facebook and What ‘The Prize’ Left Out About Newark

By Interview with Naomi Nix

No city has captured the public imagination about the promise and pitfalls of the modern education reform movement quite like Newark, New Jersey.

Five years ago, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie announced on Oprah that the social media mogul would donate $100 million to help turn around the city’s long-struggling public schools. With state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson at the helm, Newark’s school system underwent deep and wide-ranging changes from merit-based bonuses for teachers to a new enrollment system that expanded school choice.

But those changes were met with intense political opposition marked by headline-grabbing protests and the organized support of city leaders. The pushback culminated in Anderson’s resignation in June. Add to that a much-heralded new book, “The Prize”, written by veteran investigative reporter Dale Russakoff, who explores with incredible detail the fallout of Zuckerberg’s gift. (Read Conor Williams’ Seventy Four review: An Urgent Education Catastrophe Overflowing with Culprits and Caveats)

So what should we take away from the reform story in Newark? And what is the future of education in the city? In her first in-depth interview since leaving Newark, Anderson talked with The Seventy Four over email about her tenure as superintendent during that tumultuous time, lessons learned and what’s at stake in saving urban education.

The Seventy Four: If you had to grade your tenure as superintendent in Newark, what grade would you give yourself and why?

Anderson: I’ll leave it to others to grade, but for those measuring, it’s important to remember that five years ago, less than 30% of the students in Newark were operating at grade level. Ineffective teachers had job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district shrunk. Dysfunction and inefficacy was rampant as administrators abused both power and funds to dole out lucrative contracts and jobs that weren’t delivering for kids. School infrastructure was crumbling, further impacting student’s ability to learn as buildings fell apart, transportation was unreliable, and few schools even had the Internet. All of this contributed to a broken system that was not providing the best for students and families that were deeply dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to find a clear path forward to get the changes they wanted for their children.

I came to Newark with a clear mandate to fix a broken system. We made substantial progress in five years to do just that. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. Unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector brought transparency to how we measured progress, equity and fairness to enrollment especially for the hardest-to-serve students, and a city-wide shuttle service to increase options for families. Our efforts to find a “third way” to deliver radically different results for kids at scale — neither charterizing an entire system overnight nor trying to reform it from the top down — were trailblazing and have already served as a model for many cities. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to reimagine schools, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested over $100 million to upgrade facilities and technology. Ninety-five percent of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited over 40 percent of low performers with the help of a nationally-recognized and hard-fought labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped struggling young people take responsibility for their actions and drastically reduced suspension rates. We built a network of programs for disconnected youth, helping hundred of young people come back and finish school. To top it off, graduation rates rose by 12 percent.

Above all, I think our greatest accomplishment was standing up to entrenched interests and creating a sense of momentum around putting kids first.

What was the truest thing said about you and your leadership during your time in Newark, a comment or observation that left you thinking ‘This person gets it.’

On a monthly basis, I had people pull me aside to say things like “We can see you are about kids”. At one event, a grandmother stood on a chair and applauded me for my courage. “We’ve been waiting for this kind of shake-up — push harder, go faster…you have the guts to do it I can tell.” At a meeting with charter parents, they shared, “We are starting to feel like we don’t have to be ashamed for wanting the best for our kids because of you.” An educator who grew up in Newark once told me, “You’ve spit in the face of fear because of your love for kids and this is a tough place to do that.” A local leader told me, “We needed someone with your backbone focused on what’s right for kids or we would have been stuck indefinitely; we are all silently rooting for you.” I’ve always strove to align my core values with my actions, regardless of how hard it is or how many forces are pulling me in other directions. When I heard observations like this, it made me feel like the people to whom I was truly accountable really got it — even if the circumstances made it nearly impossible for them to show support more overtly.

The criticism of you was often vicious and personal. A poster depicting a drawing of you with the word liar scrawled on it in what looked like blood dripping down your forehead was a regular fixture at protests. How did you handle those moments? What did you tell yourself then? What do you tell yourself now?

The challenge of being a change agent trying to keep the interests of kids, not adults, at the core of decisions in a system characterized by patronage and machine politics took a toll. At times, the criticism felt unrelenting and deeply personal. Support from the students, families, and my team helped keep me moving forward as well as my amazing family and friends. Knowing that I was working to change a system to help young people get access to the excellence they so richly deserve also helped keep me focused.

It might sound trite but I also honestly felt like my struggles paled in comparison to what my students and their families managed on a daily basis from chronic economic hardships, family and community violence, learning disabilities and more. Their resilience put everything in perspective and inspired me to put aside whatever was thrown at me.

To what degree do you think your race or gender played a role in the public controversy surrounding your tenure as superintendent?

I am not from Newark and cities like Newark have a long history of discrimination and racism that is further underscored by a long line of outsiders that have come in promising change but delivered something quite different. I knew, understandably, that people would be initially skeptical of me as an outsider.

The daughter of two social justice activists who raised a multi-racial family of 14, nine adopted because many were deemed “hard to place”, I know progress is often hard-fought and respect is earned. Confronting my white privilege and other advantages early in life made me a fierce advocate for equity with insight about how hard it is to tackle seemingly intractable issues. Twenty years as a change agent has also made me aware that keeping kids, not adult interests, ever-present would evoke the ire of those who benefited for years from the status quo. But polls and thousands of families on waiting lists for charters also indicated to me that there was a real appetite for change. Conversations in grocery stores, on street corners, and in school hallways made me hopeful that trust and momentum could be built; families want excellent schools and they know when they aren’t getting them.

A hard truth: women make up about 75% of teachers, but less than 40% of principals, and 15% of CEOs or superintendents of school systems. We are missing out on a lot of talent because the glass ceiling is alive and well even in education. As a female CEO, I believe you are likely to experience harsh criticisms for actions and attributes that would be lauded if you were a male CEO. Your authority and expertise is challenged often and when you don’t follow advice that you believe isn’t right, many complain you don’t listen or worse — which generally means you are not compliant. The key is to remain open to feedback and to continue growing while not internalizing the persistent stereotypes you face trying to push change as a woman.

One narrative that developed around Newark Public Schools is that you were a kind of a lone ranger left to defend reform in the city on your own. What do you think of that assessment?

Reflecting on my time in Newark, one of the things I am most proud of is the team we built at Newark Public Schools. I spent considerable time recruiting, selecting, retaining, and coaching the absolute best, from principals to central office. There were already many talented individuals in Newark that were often pushed down or silenced by the bureaucracy and I worked hard to identify and support those people. My time in the (former New York City schools chancellor Joel) Klein administration, Teach for America and New Leaders meant that I had a vast national network of amazing professionals that I could mobilize to share their expertise and passion with NPS. Our team was diverse, high quality, and courageous. It would be a disservice not to acknowledge their hard work and impact.

Not to take away from the team you built in Newark, but we wanted to know if you ever felt politically abandoned by either Gov. Chris Christie or his administration or U.S. Senator Cory Booker?

Newark Public Schools status as a state-controlled district is unique and due to extreme circumstances from previous decades. By forming a strategic alliance between the state and the city, Gov. Christie and Sen. Booker jump-started the reform that Newark so badly needed. While they weren’t there for the day-to-day management, I always felt they supported the reforms we were undertaking. It did make things more difficult when they were pulled deeply into other issues that meant their much-needed local advocacy was less present.

Let’s imagine it’s 2011 again and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration offers you the job of Newark schools superintendent. Do you take it, knowing what you know now? Why or why not?

Absolutely, when I look at the successes we’ve accomplished and the impact they’ve had on the kids, I wouldn’t change accepting the job. I’m also beyond grateful for what I learned on the journey.

A rising star in education policy comes to you today and tells you she wants to take over a medium-sized struggling urban school district. What do you tell her?

If you have the passion, focus, and skill-set to step up, do it! When I was offered the post in Newark, I almost didn’t take it. “I am a COO type”, I thought. I am not interested in the limelight, or in being on TV. Several of my friends who have endeavored big things urged me otherwise and I am so glad they did.

I would also share preconditions for success to consider on the front-end:

  • If there is a large investor, work on a memorandum of agreement to ensure their resources will be aligned with the bold plan you put in place.
  • Recruit a high-level executive whose entire role is to negotiate partnerships with the charter and reform sector — or your agenda for equity and systems change could be on a collision course with theirs.
  • Have resources for combatting a political onslaught that is likely to be launched against you if you are doing your job. You need money and expertise for literature drops, paid media, door knocking, message shaping, a social media plan, and correcting misinformation in real time. In the absence of that, you’ll spend too much time on issues that have nothing to do with delivering for kids.
  • Above all, make sure you surround yourself with brutally honest and unconditionally loving friends, family, and mentors to support you through the tough times.

If you ran into Mark Zuckerberg on the street, what would you say to him?

What are you doing in Harlem?! Seriously, I’d thank him for investing in the future of children in underserved communities and his continued dedication to refining his approach and helping kids. He’s one of the most important leaders of our time and the fact that he’s willing to give of his time and money to dare to build a better reality for kids is critically important.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with him? Do you think you and Mark Zuckerberg shared the same vision for Newark schools or could those goals have been better articulated on the front-end? Tell us about a time of disagreement.

Everyone working in Newark shared the same vision: radically improving outcomes for students and delivering on their extraordinary potential. We were all, and still are, working to achieve that goal. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark several times and felt his personal commitment to equity and young people was inspiring.

If you ran into Dale Russakoff, what would you say to her?

I respect Dale and am glad she wrote a book that put the stories of Newark’s students and families squarely in the middle of a national conversation. I also think some of her criticisms of me and school reform are fair and important to reflect on.

But I also think “The Prize” trivialized or ignored critical pieces of the puzzle. Her book glosses over our constant work to find new ways to foster dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people — not just in schools or big public meetings, but at the grocery store, in small roundtables, and at local hang-outs. In these intimate discussions, we heard and felt support and enthusiasm for change. Also, while some of the changes we made will take years to bear fruit, the impressive progress we made is undeniable.

For her to suggest that the jury is still out on our impact is troubling.

Is there a way to organize families — the parents and the children who do want choice and opportunity and change — and leverage that against some of the loudest protestors?

My experience is that change happens one conversation at a time, one classroom at a time, and one school at a time. When the cameras are off, conversations with Newarkers are encouraging; families are demanding excellence and the community is highly engaged. This is a tremendous, untapped power that is very difficult to mobilize. Families in poor communities are focused on getting their students into the best school possible and attending to the economic hardship they are facing. Community members who dare to voice support for change are targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying by power brokers who benefit from an indefensible the status quo. Ugly politics inject money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that intentionally spread misinformation and fuel mistrust — and focus on trying to discredit the leader. Growing the charter sector means laying off Newarkers and shrinking the traditional system which has clear and emotional effects in the community even when there is a strong demand for them.

I think these facts can be overcome but we have to be willing to support the boldest leaders in communities like Newark, and to keep the voices of families, not power brokers, front and center. We also need to confront the basic truth that politics and reform are inextricably entwined. The key will be figuring out how to rally people around the cause rather than undermining those who are speaking hard truths. We must hold up those trying to change dysfunctional practices that are good for adults but bad for kids.

What’s your assessment, after years of leading the charge: Can struggling urban school districts like Newark’s be truly turned into excellent school systems? If so, what does it take to make that happen? If not, why not?

I’ve been in education reform for over 20 years and one thing that is striking to me: you can visit two classrooms, literally down the hall from one another, and see students mastering vastly different material. Schools in the same neighborhood serving similar students, sometimes on the same block, often achieve radically different results. And while it is undeniable that students and families wrestling with the crippling effects of poverty face unthinkable challenges in school, there are students, teachers and schools all over this country beating the odds. If excellence can occur for one student, all of the students in one teacher’s classroom, or young people in one school, it can and must happen for all kids at scale.

Research shows and my personal experience confirms great schools that attain consistently good results in high-poverty neighborhoods have similar ingredients. These schools always have an exemplary leader at the helm who is coached by a supervisor who is also a transformational leader. They have the freedom to pick and retain game-changing teachers and to align their budget with a clear theory of change. Their money and time isn’t tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Families are partners, even if they are struggling economically, and are enthusiastic about dropping off their student. Students spend more time at school and educators spend more time collaborating. Adults attend to students social and emotional need as well as to academic rigor.

If we can create systems where these conditions for success are present at scale, we can deliver on the promise of our students.

What is your biggest regret and the thing you will look back on with the most pride from your time in Newark?

I will be the first to say that school reformers – myself included – can continue to improve the quality and cultural competence with which we communicate. But, I lose sleep worrying that the well-orchestrated drama around school reform in Newark is perpetuating the wrong lessons. These efforts slow down change and young people who deserve better, now, are hurt the most.

Today, we live in a tale of two Americas: one in which people of means are prepared for a 21st century economy and another in which young people — the vast majority of whom are poor, black and Hispanic — are trapped in failed systems because the politics of change are so hard. We all suffer the consequences, not only in lost lives and higher prison rates but in other ways, like a stunning lack of diversity in board rooms, higher education institutions, corporations, nonprofits, and school reform organizations.

This isn’t just about school reform but the future of our country.

Photo by Getty Images

A version of this article appears on 74 Million.

It’s ‘Back to School’ Time, but Punitive Discipline May Be Driving Some Students Away

By Cami Anderson

It’s the time of year when we all hear a lot about kids going back to school. It is generally a time of great relief for lots of parents, excitement for educators looking to start fresh, and joy for kids who were bored over the summer.

But, having spent over two decades trying to close opportunity gaps for our most vulnerable students, I am literally pained wondering how many public school students we lost over the summer. Thousands of K-12 students across the country are attending a different school this year than they did last year — and almost 1 in 4 students in low-income urban and rural school systems. And there are many who haven’t come back to school at all.

In Newark and in New York City’s alternative District 79, where I served as superintendent, every year after the first week we tried to track down each and every student who hadn’t come back, or was sporadically attending school in the first month. One pattern was hard to deny: A majority of students who didn’t come back or who were not attending regularly had gotten into trouble in school, and were likely victims of extremely biased school discipline practices. Many of them — the ones most at risk of dropping out — had attended multiple schools in multiple years.

​This sort of educational “mobility” has serious costs for kids, particularly poor kids. Students growing up with significant risk factors face long odds of staying in school and graduating, and research shows that kids do better when they form deep bonds with staff and engage in familiar rituals. It’s critical for students to experience trust, stability, and predictability — which is why there is a strong correlation between student mobility and dropping out. Even when we tell ourselves that giving students a “fresh start” is good for them (though, obviously, being stuck in a failing school leads to worse long-term outcomes than moving), statistically, that often isn’t the case.

​Mobility has a lot of causes, and the reasons are notoriously hard to track. Some are beyond the power of schools to control. Poor families move more often than their wealthy peers. Families in the 21st century are increasingly complex, with kids living in shared custody, foster care, and/or kinship with adults zoned for different schools. Families with relatives overseas visit for long stretches over the summer and come back when they can afford to, not necessarily in alignment with the school calendar.

​But here’s an uncomfortable truth: A lot of kids who aren’t in the same school this year as they were last year (or, worse, aren’t in school at all) are gone because their old schools kicked them out or pushed them out, often as a result of discipline issues.

​Overly punitive discipline policies have turned school into the first place where many black kids are systematically punished for the color of their skin. Black students are 3½ times as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers — often for the same behaviors other students get away with — and account for half of school-based arrests despite making up only 16 percent of public school enrollment. Students with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ are also disproportionately suspended.

​Suspensions cost students thousands of hours of learning every year, often derailing their academic and economic futures. Students who have been suspended even once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later — generally, the first step toward a lifetime stuck in the revolving door of a dehumanizing criminal justice system. This is where the shameful school-to-prison pipeline starts.

​It’s time for educators and education leaders to shine a light on this long-ignored problem and start working to find solutions.

​The good news is that some schools are already pioneering new, innovative practices, rooted in research, that point the way forward. Trainings can help educators understand and manage their unconscious biases. Teachers can help students learn social and emotional skills, like self-management and conflict de-escalation, just like any academic subject. Schools can support students to become leaders and develop healthy identities and relationships. Superintendents and principals can focus on hiring and retaining staff with the mindset and skills to build strong, inclusive classroom cultures. And they can introduce alternatives to suspensions, like restorative circles and in-classroom interventions, that hold students accountable for their behavior without shutting them out from school.

​Also, some systems are becoming much more aggressive about pulling kids back to school, measuring mobility, and connecting with families. High-performing district and charter schools across the country are, literally, going door-to-door to make sure all students are in school and to gather firsthand feedback about how to stop conditions that made students stop coming. Leaders who conduct outreach and have the courage to really listen will find too many families and students give detailed descriptions of being encouraged not to come back to school, being sent home regularly, or flat-out told they are not welcome.

​Our most vulnerable students have to overcome enormous educational obstacles before they even get to school. The last thing we should be doing is slamming the door in their faces once they arrive — or, worse, creating conditions that make it hard, if not impossible, to come back. The relationship among school mobility, biased discipline, and the loss of too many young people is an overlooked problem — and one that we can, and should, fix.

​Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools from 2011 to 2015 and superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City (including the suspension centers and the schools on Rikers Island) from 2006 to 2015, is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project, a coalition of education leaders working to find new approaches to school discipline.

A version of this article appears on 74 Million.

Disparate School Discipline, the ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter, and Civil Rights — 5 Key Points That Get Lost in All the Noise

By Cami Anderson

Last week, we saw national headlines about two seemingly disparate events: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the crescendo of a national debate about whether Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should rescind Obama-era guidance about school discipline. These two milestones have more in common than many people think.

​For those not following the debate about student discipline closely, in 2011, the Council of State Governments published a methodical and rigorous study of student-level data from around the country. The study, Breaking Schools’ Rules, found that black students, particularly African-American boys, are disproportionately suspended and excluded from school, compared with their peers. Subsequent research around that time, including data from the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, found that students with disabilities are also disproportionately punished, compared with their peers. Other studies in the past five years have pointed out that LGBTQQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning — students face similarly disparate discipline.

​In response to this growing body of evidence, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to inform educators that federal laws prohibit discriminatory discipline practices and that the Office for Civil Rights could investigate districts and schools that are out of compliance with those legal requirements.

​Many advocates and educators, like me — at the time, I was the superintendent in Newark — felt the letter was a commonsense, welcome light shined in dark corners, and a rallying cry for collective action.

​Surprisingly (to me at least), the guidance has become a passionate cause for right-leaning think tanks and some politicians. Their arguments take many forms. Some believe the disproportionate data are explained by life circumstances rather than bias. Some say the advocacy is a classic case of federal overreach, tantamount to Washington telling teachers what to do. Some have tried to make the case that the guidance spurred “discipline reform” that has made schools more chaotic and less safe.

​As with many issues in our current discourse, key points that we should be talking about have gotten lost in an ideological food fight.

​Here are five points for discussion:

​The facts are the facts. An independent report issued by the objective and bipartisan General Accounting Office just last week affirmed the obvious: Exclusionary student discipline affects black students far more than their white peers. As one example, African-American students make up 55 percent of school-based arrests even as they comprise only 16 percent of the student population (and 0 percent of the perpetrators of mass school shootings). Another example: Recent studies show that black boys are far more likely to receive negative teacher attention than their peers (often for the same behaviors in kindergarten), and African-American girls are thought to be “less innocent” than their white peers. And while wonky types like to argue about whether the data are causal or correlative, being in serious trouble in school means a substantially increased likelihood you will be involved with the justice system for the rest of your life. Adult biases are at play, and they push kids into a criminal justice system where the same biases can end their life.

The law is the law. King died four years after one of his signature accomplishments: passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or gender in the workplace, schools, public accommodations, and federally assisted programs. Title VI of that act went on to further clarify that no person shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program receiving federal financial assistance. Federal guidance or not, “Dear Colleague” letter or not, the federal government has a legal mandate to uphold the law. If those who oppose the guidance — which simply gave further information about how this relates to school discipline — wish to relitigate the Civil Rights Act, they should be bold enough to say this is their intention.

Yes, support for schools and building capacity matters. One thing about which some right-leaning think tank leaders and I can agree: We must replace antiquated practices with new ones. We can’t simply be against suspensions and expulsions; we have to be for a new set of policies and practices — and we have to invest in training, support, and coaching for teachers, student support staff, school safety agents, administrators, families, and organizations that work alongside schools. Policy alone is not the answer, but it is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Many conservative politicians and thought leaders seem to abandon their belief in holding schools and educators accountable for results when it comes to disproportionality in school discipline data.

Blame won’t solve the problem. It is tempting for district schools to suggest charter schools are the biggest offenders of disproportionate discipline — and for charter schools to say districts are incapable of solving problems. It’s easy for teachers to say principals are the problem, principals to say teachers are the problem, schools to say families are the problem, or families to say other families are the problem. Where we see progress on this issue, we see people working together to build the skill and will of all the adults in a community to prevent incidents in the first place and to respond to children in developmentally appropriate ways when they do occur.

What matters most: upholding students’ civil rights. What does the anniversary of King’s murder have to do with the current debate about school discipline? The very law that he and so many others fought to enact is about establishing the federal government’s role in ensuring that citizens are free from discrimination when accessing public institutions. From an educational standpoint, this means protecting students’ civil rights. The federal government is responsible, by Constitution and law, for ensuring that the societal inequities that exist because of race, class, ableism, and sexual identity are not cemented in schools.

King implored us all to act with the “fierce urgency of now” when it comes to realizing a day when all citizens have equal rights. Let’s keep the focus first on supporting schools and families to ensure that all young people, not just those we perceive to be compliant, thrive and excel. We need to embrace an approach that builds the capacity of schools to support the healthy identity of every student — and holds them accountable for creating bias-free environments in accordance with civil rights laws.

Time 100: Cami Anderson | TIME

Cami Anderson is taking bold and controversial steps to reform education in the Newark Public School system.