Looking Back, Moving Forward: Technical, Normative, and Political Dimensions of School Discipline

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Graduate School of Social Work


School discipline, Educational policy, Equity-minded change, Racial disparities, Out-of-school suspension


Purpose: School discipline reformers have presumed that such work is largely a technical task, emphasizing discrete changes to discipline policies and protocols. Yet prior theory and research suggest that emphasizing technical changes may overlook additional and important aspects of reform, namely, the normative and political dimensions within which technical aspects are embedded. Although this earlier work appears relevant to contemporary school discipline reform, the extent to which this theory extends to school discipline remains unestablished. The purpose of this article is to show how this earlier line of theory extends to the topic of school discipline. Method: We draw on data collected as part of a qualitative study in which we conducted semistructured interviews and focus groups with 198 educators from 33 public schools on the topic of school discipline. We applied an equity-minded reform theory to examine technical, normative, and political dimensions of school discipline. Findings and Implications: We found the technical dimension of school discipline was characterized by educators’ strategic use of school resources and capacity building; normative conditions that supported conflict prevention and increased responsibility; and political dynamics in which administrators shifted power to encourage more inclusive discipline strategies. Furthermore, using this model illuminated interrelationships between dimensions, suggesting that unidimensional models—and their related reforms—may overlook nuances of this important reform issue. This theoretical extension provides a more holistic conceptualization than currently used in reform efforts, contributes to earlier lines of scholarship, and opens up new avenues of future inquiry.

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