Friday, January 26, 2018

What Do We Know About School Discipline Reform?

Assessing the alternatives to suspensions and expulsions

By  and  

Education Next

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced this spring that the number of suspensions and expulsions in the nation’s public schools had dropped 20 percent between 2012 and 2014.
The news was welcomed by those who oppose the frequent use of suspensions and expulsions, known as exclusionary discipline. In recent years, many policymakers and educators have called for the adoption of alternative disciplinary strategies that allow students to stay in school and not miss valuable learning time. Advocates for discipline reform contend that suspensions are meted out in a biased way, because minority students and those with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of them. Some also assert that reducing suspensions would improve school climate for all students.
Government leaders have taken steps to encourage school discipline reform. The Obama administration has embarked on several initiatives to encourage schools to move away from suspensions and toward alternative strategies. In 2011, the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to coordinate federal efforts in this area. In January 2014, the DOE released a resource package with a variety of informational materials designed to support state and local efforts to improve school climate and discipline. The package included a “Dear Colleague” letter, issued jointly by DOE and DOJ, warning against intentional racial discrimination but also stating that schools unlawfully discriminate even “if a policy is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
Discipline reform efforts are also underway at the state and school-district levels. As of May 2015, 22 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws in order to require or encourage schools to: limit the use of exclusionary discipline practices; implement supportive (that is, nonpunitive) discipline strategies that rely on behavioral interventions; and provide support services such as counseling, dropout prevention, and guidance services for at-risk students. And as of the 2015–16 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts nationwide had implemented policy reforms requiring nonpunitive discipline strategies and/or limits to the use of suspensions. In an April 2014 survey of 500 district superintendents conducted by the School Superintendents Association (AASA), 84 percent of respondents reported that their districts had updated their code of conduct within the previous three years.
What evidence supports the call for discipline reform? How might alternative strategies affect students and schools? In this article, we describe the critiques of exclusionary discipline and then examine the research base on which discipline policy reform rests. We also describe the alternative approaches that are gaining traction in America’s schools and present the evidence on their efficacy. Throughout, we consider what we know (and don’t yet know) about the effect of reducing suspensions on a variety of important outcomes, such as school safety, school climate, and student achievement.
In general, we find that the evidence for critiques of exclusionary discipline and in support of alternative strategies is relatively thin. In part, this is because many discipline reforms at the state and local levels have only been implemented in the last few years. While disparities in school discipline by race and disability status have been well documented, the evidence is inconclusive as to whether or not these disparate practices involve racial bias and discrimination. Further, the evidence on alternative strategies is mainly correlational, suggesting that more research is necessary to uncover how alternative approaches to suspensions affect school safety and student outcomes.
Addressing such questions is vitally important, because a safe school climate is essential for student success. A recent National Center for Education Statistics report documented downward trends in suspensions, student victimization, and reports of bullying. Since 2006, out-of-school suspensions have declined, with more recent declines in expulsions (see Figure 1). Still, more than one-third of teachers in 2012 reported that student behavior problems and tardiness interfered with their teaching. Regardless of the kind of discipline districts choose to employ, policymakers and school leaders must recognize that school disorder and violence have adverse effects on all students. For example, students who were exposed to Hurricane Katrina evacuees with significant behavior problems experienced short-term increases in school absences and discipline problems themselves. Recent evidence also shows that exposure to disruptive peers during elementary school worsens student achievement and later life outcomes, including high school achievement, college enrollment, and earnings (see “Domino Effect,” research, Summer 2009). These findings highlight the importance of closely monitoring the effects of discipline reform on all students.

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