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News Opinion

Keeping kids in class

Baltimore teachers are voicing concern about a controversial program at nine city schools aimed at reducing out-of-school student suspensions. The program rewards teachers and principals with cash bonuses of up to $9,500 for keeping troublesome or disruptive students in class rather than sending them home on suspension, and the union worries that such financial incentives might blind some administrators and staff to bad behavior or even cause them to ignore potential threats to classroom safety.

Preventing unnecessary suspensions is important because keeping kids in school is almost always better than putting them out on the streets, where the likelihood of their getting into more serious mischief cannot be dismissed. But there are certainly also some cases where suspensions are needed to protect the safety of students, teachers and staff. This program requires a tricky balance to make sure the financial incentives eliminate the suspensions that aren't needed but not the ones that are. If it can be made to work as advertised — and if test scores and graduation rates go up as a result — its advantages for students, teachers and their schools may well outweigh all other considerations.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso has made reducing the number of student out-of-school suspensions a priority of his reform effort ever since arriving in Baltimore in 2007. He argued early on that kicking kids out of school for nonviolent nuisance offenses such as truancy and talking back was counterproductive, since students who are suspended are more likely to fall behind or drop out, and because in any case they often return to school with the same (or worse) problems they had when they left.

One of Mr. Alonso's first acts as schools chief was to urge principals and teachers to develop alternatives to suspension as a way of disciplining students while hewing to zero tolerance for violence. Instead of sending kids home, schools organized in-school or after-school detention periods; at one point, officials created an alternative program for suspended students right inside the school system's headquarters building. And the results were impressive. During the last five years, the overall number of school suspensions in Baltimore City has dropped by half, while test scores and graduation rates have risen.

The cash incentives for keeping kids in class are being offered only at a handful of schools where out-of-school suspensions have been a persistent problem. The program, funded by a $695,000 federal Race to the Top grant, began last January as an experiment aimed at attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and administrators to the state's worst schools. We don't yet know whether it will consistently lead to lower rates of unnecessary suspensions, but the school system and the union need to at least give it enough time to see whether it's working.

Meanwhile, it's worth emphasizing that reducing the number of students suspended from school is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. What we really should care about is the effect such reductions have on improving student performance in a way that enables more young people to graduate from high school with the skills they need to be successful in college or the work world. That will be the true test of whether the program is a success.

We also need to recognize that even if it does prove successful in that sense, there will still be a certain number of students whose behavior warrants suspension despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators to keep them in school. Young people who act out violently, who threaten and intimidate their classmates or their teachers or who brings weapons to school have to know that such conduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

We can't imagine that teachers or administrators would deliberately put themselves or others at risk of serious harm by ignoring such behavior solely for the opportunity to earn a few thousand dollars more in their paychecks. Skillful teachers have a gift for keeping order in their classrooms, but they also know from long experience how to react when a difficult situation threatens to spin dangerously out of control.

There's no indication any of the schools participating in the program have reached that point, however. That's why we think it's still too early to pass judgment on its success or failure. We'll know soon enough whether it produces the results we really care about — higher test scores, more graduates — and until then we should let this experiment proceed.

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