But despite the allure of progressive education, Little's findings illustrate the challenge of scaling the model up to districts with large, high-poverty schools. After all, the campuses he identified are small and either private or dependent on a charismatic, passionate leader. And for the most part, little convincing evidence has existed to demonstrate that progressive education is more than just an ideal—until now.
Research has long showed that stringent discipline policies are alive and well at public schools across America. As a recent report from UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies makes clear, many of the country's schools are a long way off from enjoying the values typical of progressive education. That's particularly true of the second quality identified by Little—student freedom—given that the nation's schools since 2009 have, on average, reported an annual suspension rate of 10 percent, the highest it's ever been. The rate, which started steadily increasing in 1972, is based on U.S. Department of Education’s civil-rights data and pertains to the percentage of individual students who were suspended once or more in any given year; it doesn't use the total number of suspensions at a school, which could include the same student numerous times. African Americans and students with disabilities, the report shows, are suspended at much higher rates than their white and general-education peers.
Zero-tolerance policies mean that suspension is used as a consequence for infractions ranging from severe (such as weapon possession) to minor (defiance or chronic tardiness). In some charter-school networks, including Success Academy in New York and Uncommon in Newark, as well as some public-school districts—such as Pontiac, Michigan, and Saint Louis, Missouri—nearly a third of students are suspended annually, according to the UCLA study. Meanwhile, Florida as a whole has a 19 percent suspension rate. And in Texas, nearly 60 percent of students have been suspended by the time they graduate high school, according to a 2011 report by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. As that report documented, suspensions and expulsions can predict a cascade of poor outcomes for kids, including failing a grade, dropping out, or becoming incarcerated. (The UCLA report excluded New York City because of inconsistently reported data.)
Nationally, African American students are suspended at three times the rate of their white counterparts, creating a "discipline gap," as Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, puts it. The term, he said, shows the link between discipline trends and the socioeconomic chasm in academic achievement. The discipline gap is so well-documented that the U.S. education and justice departments issued a joint "Dear Colleague" letter last January telling school systems to fix discriminatory punitive practices.