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[FIRST READ] Using Data to Discipline

Author and educator Geoff Colvin writes about the what’s, why’s, and how’s of establishing an effective discipline program. In this excerpt he details how district executives can use their data-management systems to help.

From: 7 Steps for Developing Discipline: A Proactive Schoolwide Discipline Plan, by Geoff Colvin
Corwin Press, 2007 

School discipline has always been perceived as essential for the proper functioning of a public school. There is a universal expectation that discipline is necessary for students to learn and that educators are expected to establish and maintain well-disciplined schools. The “public trust” is very clear—children’s learning must be conducted in a safe and orderly environment.

Parents, community members, and educators historically have taken pride in maintaining well-disciplined schools. However, there has been a growing concern that the prevalence of problem behavior or the lack of school discipline is reaching crisis proportions. On school campuses, there are incidents of serious problem behavior related to safety. Homicides, assaults, rapes, drug activity, and crime in general are increasing. These concerns have arisen despite significant efforts to improve security by increasing the law-enforcement presence on campuses, hiring security staff, attending to safe school design, and providing educational programs to address school safety.

Another way to develop a proactive approach to schoolwide discipline is through the use of a district’s data-management system. On the surface, it would appear a quite straightforward step. Essentially, fields need to be developed for the data entry, such as student information, infraction, referring teacher, and action taken. These data are entered into a spreadsheet, and reports can be gleaned in many ways. Moreover, there are several data-­management-system software programs readily available for schools.

However, maintaining the data entries and, more important, using the data for holding accountability, making decisions, and evaluating programs have not been strong points in schools and districts in general. Several authors and researchers have noted that the adoption of evidence-based technologies has been limited and short term. While the big picture in education regarding the reliable use of evidence-based practices may be quite disconcerting, considerable gains can be made and have been made in effective use of office-referral data in schools. Here’s how to start.

Strong leadership is needed for effectual and efficient data-management systems to be implemented and maintained. A leadership team has a critical role in ensuring where data are collected and used in the school-wide plan. The following suggestions for the team have been drawn from districts where data collection is in place and is used to guide implementation and maintain the plan.

Determine a data-management system
. There are several options for determining which kind of system should be used in an individual school or district. These options include a self-generated program, a commercial program, or a Web-based program, such as the Schoolwide Information System (SWIS) plan developed at the University of Oregon ( It does not seem to matter which system is used as long as the data are reliably collected, entered, and used.

Designate a data-entry person.
Someone on the staff needs to be given the responsibility of entering the data on a regular basis. This person needs to be fully trained and given the time to make the entries. It is also necessary to have a backup person trained and available in case the designated person is on leave for sickness or other reasons.

Monitor data entry.
Once someone has been designated to enter the data, the next step is to ensure that the data are being entered on the scheduled basis. Typically, the school administrator on the team is in touch with the data-entry designee on a weekly basis for the first few weeks. In this way, the administrator can gauge if the data are being entered and, if not, address the issue and problem-solve as needed.

Gather reports weekly. The team should receive data reports on a weekly or biweekly schedule. In this way, the team becomes educated in reviewing the data, and trends can be readily seen on a regular basis.

Present the reports to the faculty. In this model, the team makes ongoing contact with the faculty. The schoolwide discipline plan should be a standard item on the faculty meeting agenda. This time slot should be used frequently to present data findings to the faculty. Summary graphs and reports can also be disseminated through the mail or message-box
system in the school.

Use the data for decision-making. Most important, the team must provide leadership in how the data are to be used in decision-making. For example, the data may indicate that there has been an increase in office referrals at recess or in hallways over the past month. This information is then used to develop a plan to address the reasons for the referrals, and a draft plan is developed. The data and plan are taken to the faculty for discussion and adoption.

Disseminate results. It is important for the team to disseminate the data results on a regular basis to stake­holders including parents, the district office, board members, and the community as appropriate. This practice will enable progress to be identified and celebrated.

The key to an effective proactive schoolwide discipline plan is the systematic use of data. The following reasons are presented to highlight the importance for schools and districts to adopt and fully use data-management systems.

Track progress. First and foremost, a data-management system enables the team and faculty members to answer this fundamental question regarding any plan or innovation: “Is the plan working?” For example, if one school’s office referrals were reduced by 25 percent from one year to the next after implementing a proactive schoolwide discipline plan, it could be concluded that the plan is working. Given that all staff are expected to do their part in implementing the plan, they need assurances that the plan is effective.

Create a basis for decision-making. Once a data-management system is in place, the team and faculty are in a position to evaluate the overall progress of the plan. The first question always to be asked: “Is the faculty implementing the plan as intended?” Sometimes, some faculty member may not have started to implement the plan; others may be implementing the plan but changing it to suit their positions. To determine the root cause of the lack of fidelity, the team may need to hold a frank discussion with staff and conduct some observations around the building to see if faculty is following the details of the plan.

Let the data serve as a catalyst for interventions. In some cases, especially if staff are highly motivated to achieve solid results for students, merely the act of looking at data will prompt them to action if the data indicate problems.

For example, there was one elementary school interviewed that had a pre-office referral step of time-out, which meant that students who displayed unacceptable behavior in class were sent to another classroom or supervised area. Data on the frequency of these time-outs were taken with the results presented to the faculty. Once the teachers saw the data, their efforts became more focused in implementing a proactive schoolwide plan. These data also served to provide direct feedback to students who were receiving high rates of time-outs.

Track behavior patterns. Data can also be used to track behavior patterns and trends either during the year or over several years. Once the patterns are identified, decisions can be made to develop specific plans to address these trends. By collecting the same type of data over time, the effectiveness of the plan in changing these patterns can
be gauged.

Identify special needs students. Students identified as having special needs regarding behavior issues represent about five percent of the student body. These students typically do not respond to universal interventions offered by a schoolwide proactive discipline plan. It is very important to identify these students as early as possible so that appropriate, individualized behavior support plans can be developed. If the needs of these students are not addressed, it will not be very long before teachers may conclude that the schoolwide plan is not working, resulting in less effort to implement the plan reliably.

In addition, the breakout by individual students provides important information or documentation that can be addressed at parent meetings. These reports may also be needed to document student needs by other agencies that may be involved with the student, such as child-abuse agencies and case managers for mental-health departments and juvenile crime services.

Work with individual teachers. One of the most difficult aspects of data analysis for decision-making is using the data to help individual teachers. In some cases, it is clear that the majority of referrals, especially from classrooms, come from individual teachers. In these cases, the teacher may need additional assistance in addressing the problems. Careful attention must be given as to how this information is communicated and addressed to a teacher, otherwise there could be problems with the teachers union if individual teachers are singled out in this way. It is best to set an expectation before the data system is implemented that one of the ways the data will be analyzed is by individual teachers making the referrals.

In addition, it is important that any breakouts on these lines are conducted with all teachers, and that the results are treated as confidential. They should not be placed in the teacher’s file or used for teacher evaluation purposes. Any follow-up should be conducted by the school administrator on the team rather than teacher team members.

Monitor disciplinary actions to ensure equity. A major concern in many areas across the nation has been the inequities displayed when data are disaggregated by ethnicity. The proportion of ethnically diverse people in prisons, on death row, in the juvenile system, and living in poverty is significantly higher than the corresponding proportions of the total population. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice (2005) showed that African-Americans represent 13 percent of the national population, but 41 percent of incarcerated people. Also, one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation, a rate three times higher than for Latino males and 10 times higher than for white males for this age group.

The No Child Left Behind Act was essentially spawned by an analysis of academic achievement data by ethnicity (disaggregating the data by race). It was very clear that for African-­American students academic achievement scores were significantly below those of their white counterparts. Similar patterns have been found by disaggregating office-referral data by ethnicity. Clearly, it is very important to provide rigorous monitoring of the office-referral data by ethnicity and action taken. These data will quickly draw attention to any inequities and should prompt an appropriate response by the leadership team and faculty.

It is a common requirement for schools to develop school improvement plans. The impetus for this requirement typically comes from the school board and district office. These plans can show considerable variation, from being very broad, such as to improve the school climate, to concrete measurable outcomes, such as to raise the achievement scores in reading by 20 percent. One dimension for school improvement lies in effective use of office-referral data. For example, the school may wish to reduce the inequities of the number of office referrals and suspension actions based on ethnicity. Another school may wish to reduce office referrals from classrooms by 25 percent through providing ongoing professional development on classroom management.

Once the faculty, through the leadership provided by the team, become fluent consumers of office-referral data and make decisions based on these data, it is a relatively easy step for them to develop effective school improvement plans. Specifically, the data provide the measuring system to determine if the goal has been met and the schoolwide proactive discipline plan provides the tools to accomplish the goal. When a school or district achieves or exceeds its goals, the results should be disseminated and celebrated in some way.

Set the stage for instruction. The primary purpose of the pro­active schoolwide discipline plan is to create a positive, safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for all students and staff. Once this environment is established, teachers and educators are in a stronger position to provide instruction.

Consequently, it is common to see co-variation between schoolwide data and academic performance. One school in Anchorage, Alaska, found that over a three-year period the number of suspensions progressively decreased and the reading scores progressively increased. These results must be particularly gratifying to the school because they are keeping more students in school by reducing suspensions and, at the same time, increasing their reading scores. (It is important to note there is no evidence that significant changes in behavioral data will directly cause academic results to increase.)

For academic results to increase, careful attention needs to be paid to instructional interventions such as adopting effective curricula, using sound instructional practices, and following assessment procedures. However, the claim is made that when an effective schoolwide discipline plan is in place, the stage is set for providing quality instruction. The converse is also true: When a school has serious schoolwide behavioral issues, quality instruction becomes more difficult to implement.

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