• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D.• IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997
The Texas Legislature in 1995 adopted a new state policy requiring that each school system create alternative education programs, including “alternative educational settings for behavioral management.” These programs were intended to address concerns raised by classroom teachers. Many teachers had expressed the need for student disciplinary options that would allow them to remove from their classes students who were engaged in serious misbehavior.
The new policy specifies that students may be removed to alternative education programs if they engage in conduct punishable as a felony or if they commit a series of specified serious offenses while on school property or while attending a school-sponsored or school-related activity on or off school property. The statute also provided for students to be removed to alternative education programs if they commit other violations specified in student “codes of conduct” developed by local school districts.
What began as a discussion on how to effectively address serious student offenders was quickly expanded to a much broader initiative to increase educators’ prerogatives to remove any student considered to be disruptive. At first glance, it appears that creating alternative educational settings for seriously disruptive students is a reasonable and, for some, a necessary alternative (particularly if the other option is simply to expel students to roam unsupervised outside of the schools). No doubt that for the small number of pupils who do engage in seriously disruptive behavior, removal to an alternative educational setting is appropriate. But, while being well intended by most people, these alternative educational programs may also provide easy opportunities for schools to exile or track certain students who they may have given up on or written off.
There is the potential for overusing alternative education program referrals and for using this punitive measure disproportionately on certain groups of students. This suggests that educators and community advocates should carefully monitor the large numbers of alternative education programs that are now operating in most communities in Texas.
Alternative Education Program Referrals
In addition to the more serious offenses specified in the law, the state policy specifies that teachers may remove from a class any student the teacher perceives as “so unruly, disruptive or abusive that it seriously interferes with the teacher’s ability to communicate effectively with the students in the class or with the ability of the student’s classmates to learn” (TEC, 1995).
Local school districts are encouraged either to house these programs at a separate campus or, when that is not possible, to create separate instructional settings where referred students can be separated from other students attending the same campus.
According to the Texas Education Agency, disciplinary alternative programs must meet the following criteria (which is outlined in the state policy):
- The program is provided in a setting other than the student’s regular classroom.
- The program is located on or off a regular school campus.
- The program separates the students who are assigned to the program from students who not assigned.
- The program curriculum focuses on English language arts, mathematics, science, history and self-discipline.
- The program provides for students’ educational and behavioral needs.
- The program provides supervision and counseling.
According to summary data recently compiled by the Texas Education Agency, approximately 80,000 students were referred to alternative educational programs in 1996-97. Beyond summary data on numbers of students, however, very little other information has been compiled on these programs. In a recent meeting of at-risk coordinators, one group volunteered that a new emerging indicator of a student’s potential for dropping out is “referral to alternative education programs.” Few people would propose that the alternative programs were created to encourage some students to leave school. But if this is indeed an unintended by-product, the concept as it is currently being implemented will require much more critical examination.
A Need for Assessing Implementation
Two years after the creation of alternative educational programs little information had been made available about the effects of these programs on students or schools. Given this lack of information, it is vital that educators and communities ask some key questions. These include:
- How many such programs have been created to date? Are there schools or districts that have chosen to forego them or have found such programs unnecessary?
- If there are instances where no alternative education programs are in operation, what are common characteristics among those districts or schools?
- In districts that are operating alternative education programs, what is the total number of students who are enrolled and what is the demographic profile of those being referred?
Other critical student-related questions involve how students are referred to these alternative settings and by whom. It would also be useful to know for what periods of time they are referred and the processes used to reintegrate them into the “regular” program.
For those interested in due process issues, it may help to ask what role students’ parents play in local referrals and what opportunities for parents are made available to question or appeal the school or teacher’s action before it is implemented.
Those interested in curricular issues may want more information about the course offerings available to students at these alternative settings. It might also be interesting to examine the textbooks and materials available in alternative programs and to assess the extent to which they are comparable to materials in the “regular” program.
For those who are more concerned with personnel issues, it would be important to request a profile of staff members who are assigned to these alternative educational settings, including gender, race and ethnicity, average salaries, average years of experience, degrees held, and the extent to which staff members are teaching in their areas of certification.
Since the rationale for creating these alternative settings suggests that teachers are expected to improve instructional opportunities for students who are not referred, it is fair to ask whether or not instruction has indeed improved in settings where some students were sent to alternative educational programs. Did smaller class sizes result? Did TAAS test scores go up? Is there any evidence that the creation of these programs created fewer disciplinary problems in the schools from which they were removed?
Proponents of alternative education programs may feel uncomfortable with these questions. Some may even become indignant that such questions are being raised, in part because the alternative programs were created in response to the desire of some educators to remove whatever students they felt were disruptive in their schools or classes. Parents and student advocates, however, are justified in raising any of the questions suggested above.
Those choosing to begin the inquiry of local alternative programs should not be surprised to encounter some opposition to their efforts, particularly from those who feel they have benefited in some way from the unbridled authority that was provided to them in this legislation.
In conversations with educators, we have discovered that some classroom teachers and school administrators perceive the alternative program referral prerogative as a “right” and bristle at the notion that anyone would question the effects of those practices. While few would oppose the idea that teachers should have the right to remove seriously disruptive students, preliminary data released by the Texas Education Agency reveals an interesting trend. The majority of students who have been referred to alternative programs were not referred for the more serious violations outlined in the education code. They were referred for reasons classified under the “local criteria” districts are allowed to prescribe (see “Are We Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools?”).
The large numbers of students enrolled in these programs and the large numbers of alternative education program schools created have even led to the development of “alternative accountability” mechanisms for those programs. Why these schools should be judged differently from the criteria applied to all other schools is a question that begs an answer.
The alternative education program concept has been in place a sufficient amount of time to assess how it is working and, more specifically, whether or not students as a whole are benefiting from it.
The IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership is conducting a statewide analysis of alternative educational programs. Local communities are encouraged to conduct their own, more comprehensive evaluation of alternative education programs guided by some of the questions posed in this article and supplemented by other questions that relate to their local situation.
Components of Effective Alternative Education Programs
|Source: National Center for Education Statistics. “Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide.” U.S. Department of Education. Internet posting (September 1996).|
Texas Education Agency. Administrative Memorandum (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, September 9, 1997).
Texas Education Code. Subtitle G. Safe Schools. Chapter 37. Discipline and Law and Order. Subchapter A. Alternative Settings for Behavior Management (1995).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]