A recent study in the journal Education Finance and Policy uses quarterly achievement and discipline data on nearly 16,000 seventh through eleventh grade students in an inner-ring suburban California school district to estimate the effect of suspensions on the English language arts and math achievement of non-suspended classmates.
The findings are both predictable and surprising: Students whose disruptive classmates are suspended show gains in math achievement—but not in ELA.
The researchers looked at both out-of-school suspensions (OSS) and in-school suspensions (ISS). They found that the effect of each additional OSS for major infractions—those that are dangerous or illegal, like violence or drug possession—on classmates was equivalent to the effect one might expect if those students had five fewer absences in math class. For disruptive infractions—something that interrupts learning, like talking out of turn, but isn’t dangerous or illegal—the effect of each additional ISS on non-suspended peers’ math scores was equivalent to eight fewer absences. These results are not independent of each other, however. Classes with more OSS are also more likely to have more ISS.
The disconnect between the estimates for math and ELA is intriguing. Perhaps students need a more orderly environment to learn math than they do to learn ELA. Or perhaps other factors, such as a students’ home environment or the quality and quantity of the social studies instruction he or she receives, play a greater role in ELA learning.
Regardless, this study provides more evidence that there are real trade-offs associated with suspensions. The negative impacts on suspended students are doubtless real, but so are the impacts of disruptive behavior on classmates. Still, given the greater effect from ISS on classmates’ test scores for disruptive infractions and the role that OSS plays in the school-to-prison pipeline, there is a clear case for relying on ISS for infractions that are disruptive but not a threat to student safety.
SOURCE: NaYoung Hwang and Thurston Domina, “Peer Disruption and Learning: Links between Suspensions and the Educational Achievement of Non-Suspended Students,” Education Finance and Policy, (July 1, 2021).