Poor School Culture Undermines Blueprint for Maryland’s Future

via The Baltimore Sun • Originally published: Oct 23, 2023 at 10:10 am

The Maryland General Assembly enacted the extraordinary Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. It is the most significant legislation passed in Maryland — or any state — in decades. The Blueprint provides Maryland a first-in-the nation systemic vision of opportunity, accountability and equity in our schools.

As important and transformative as the Blueprint is, however, there is a glaring omission. The Blueprint does not explicitly address school culture. The culture of any institution determines how well the institution works. That is true for every workplace, faith community, civic group, neighborhood association or any other institution. If the culture of an institution is poor, the work of the institution will suffer.

Daily headlines reveal the divisive and unhealthy state of our city, state and nation. The relationships among teachers, staff, students, administrators and parents make up the crux of culture in the school setting. Does each person value the other, whether “the other” is a person of a different race, speaks a different language, practices a different religion, or has a different sexual orientation? In schools, poor relationships — devaluing “the other” — manifest in various ways that cause harm and are at odds with a healthy culture for learning.

Poor school culture helps drive the performance gap between Black students and white students: 34% of our state’s Black students are proficient in English/language arts, while 63% of our white students are. In math, the numbers are: 40% proficient for white students; 12% for Black. These facts are totally unacceptable and unnecessary.

Exclusionary disciplinary practices also are disproportionately imposed on students of color and students with disabilities. Of the school suspensions and expulsions in Maryland during the 2021-’22 school year, 60% were Black students and 27% were students with disabilities. These students face low achievement, dropping out, and juvenile and adult criminal custody at a much higher rate.

The same culture of devaluation leads teachers to leave schools. Almost 14% of Maryland’s new teachers leave within their first three years. Poor school culture also leads to chronic student absenteeism. In Maryland, nearly 30% of enrolled students were chronically absent in 2022. Thirty-seven percentof middle schoolers and 39% of highschoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more in the previous year; 29% of high school students and 23% of middle school students reported that their mental health was not good most of or all of the time.

For schools, there is an evidence-based answer to poor culture. We can create a caring culture in every school that is respectful, values the voices of all and promotes accountability by all for their actions. This whole school evidence-based strategy is called restorative practices.

The idea of restorative practices is not new. In 2018, the General Assembly’s Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices issued its report. It recommended that restorative approaches to discipline be made an integral part of Maryland school operations, a practice that the legislature put into law in 2019, via House Bill 725.

An Open Society Institutute report of the first 15 Baltimore City schools that implemented restorative practices schoolwide found there was a 44% decline in school suspensions in the first year. Another analysis, following the training of Baltimore City’s school resource officers, found a 81% reduction in school arrests over a 5-year period. Studies in Pittsburgh, Oakland, Denver, Dallas and other cities around the country have determined that restorative practices result in the improvement of student attendance, reductions in exclusionary disciplinary practices, increases in student academic performance, a greater sense of school safety, higher teacher satisfaction and a stronger feeling of belonging by students and teachers.

Unfortunately, Maryland’s efforts do not have sustained funding, staffing and training; they are more ad hoc than systemic. Serious change in the culture of 1,400 schools will require restorative practices to be phased in over at least 10 years, with at least one full-time restorative coach placed in each school. It will require well-trained school administrators that model restorative practices daily and substantive training for Maryland’s 60,000 teachers and other staff.

Restorative schools are one of those bold initiatives that would help move Maryland from being strategy poor, as the Governor described, to being strategy rich. Schools are our most ubiquitous institution, basically one in every neighborhood. Where better to rise to Gov. Wes Moore’s call to “lead with love” by creating the conditions in which each school is a restorative school, where each person values each other, respects differences, listens to one another and accepts responsibility for one’s actions.

David Hornbeck (dhornbeck1@gmail.com) is a former Maryland superintendent of schools (1976 to 1988) and Philadelphia school superintendent (1994 to 2000). He is also founder of Restorative Schools Maryland and Strong Schools Maryland.