“Restorative practices” are an increasingly popular alternative to suspensions. To examine the effectiveness such practices, researchers at the RAND Corporation studied Pittsburgh’s new restorative justice program. It’s the largest study of its kind, and the first randomized control trial of this disciplinary strategy—and unfortunately, the results are decidedly mixed.

RAND worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) and the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) to evaluate a new restorative justice program, Pursuing Equitable and Restorative Communities (PERC), over two years. The program aims to help students build better relationships with their peers and teachers and understand how their actions affect others. This should, researchers posit, lead to fewer punishable behaviors, more instructional time, and improved academic outcomes. PERC includes eleven restorative practices staff can implement, for example:

  • Affective Statements: “Personal expressions of feeling in response to specific positive or negative behaviors of others.”
  • Proactive Circles: “Meetings with participants seated in a circle…for students to share feelings, ideas, and experiences in order to build trust.”
  • Responsive Circles: “Meetings with participants seated in a circle…[for] the management of conflict and tension.”

Restorative practices are not meant to replace more serious consequences like suspension for serious offenses, but to remind the student that their punishment does not imply permanent exclusion from the community.

Of Pittsburgh’s forty-four eligible schools, half were randomly selected as “treatment schools,” where staff received training and ongoing professional development on how to implement restorative practices in the classroom. The other twenty-two did not participate in the program, but researchers did not look into what disciplinary strategies they do use. RAND experts monitored implementation efforts through classroom observation and teacher surveys and interviews. They tracked PERC’s effects using administrative data on student performance and behavior from schools and county law enforcement. After two years of data collection, they found mixed results from the program.

PERC did decrease the number and duration of suspensions, particularly in elementary schools and for nonviolent infractions. However, researchers note that it is unclear whether students committed fewer infractions or teachers simply favored non-exclusionary discipline options. They note elsewhere in the study that teachers reported no change in overall student behavior. PERC also decreased the gap in suspension rates between races, and overall school climate improved according to teacher surveys (the researchers did not survey students on this question). Behavioral results were most positive at the elementary school level.

PERC had no impact on student arrest rates, which were already low, and had almost no impact on daily attendance.

But alarmingly, test scores in PERC schools dropped for both middle schoolers and African American students. Even overall, academic performance in PERC schools remained flat.

The study has some limitations that may affect its findings. First, RAND only studied implementation over two years. It is possible that stronger results will take longer to show. Second, they do not have any direct measures of student experiences with PERC, such as student interviews or the number of student referrals to the office. And finally, researchers had little insight into how each restorative practice was used daily at the classroom level.

Despite these limitations, the results of PERC are underwhelming. A drop in suspensions is good as far as it goes, but researchers could not identify a cause for the change, and teachers expressed confusion as to whether restorative practices were supposed to take the place of other disciplinary actions. Additionally, to see no effect on arrest rates and potentially negative academic effects is concerning, especially since RAND does not include any information about the cost of the program. We can’t shake a stick at wanting struggling students to feel like part of the community, but as a comprehensive approach to discipline reform, restorative justice does not seem promising.

SOURCE: Catherine H. Augustine et. al., “Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions? An Evaluation of the Impact of Restorative Practices in a Mid-Sized Urban School District.RAND Corporation, 2018.

Jessie McBirney is a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington DC after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in Political Science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.