One important question about school discipline is whether it helps or harms those being disciplined. But a second, equally important question is whether a push to reduce the number of suspensions is harmful to the rule-abiding majority.

Fordham’s newest study, The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia, examines outcomes in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), which made dramatic changes to its code of conduct during the 2012–13 school year. Specifically, it instituted a new ban on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) for low-level “conduct” offenses—such as profanity or failure to follow classroom rules—and reduced the length of OSS for more serious infractions. To gauge the impacts of these changes, Matthew Steinberg (University of Pennsylvania) and Johanna Lacoe (Mathematica) examined data before and after they were implemented, and penned two scholarly papers: one that focuses on the district-level effects of the change in discipline policy, and a second that explores patterns of attendance and achievement at the school, grade, and individual levels.

Here we combine those papers and synthesize their key findings for a lay audience, which include:

  • Changes in district policy had no long-term impact on the number of low-level “conduct” suspensions, and most schools did not comply with the ban on such suspensions.
  • Changes in district policy were associated with improved attendance—but not improved achievement—for previously suspended students.
  • “Never-suspended” peers (i.e., students who didn’t receive a suspension in any of the years considered by the study) experienced worse outcomes in the most economically and academically disadvantaged schools, which were also the schools that did not (or could not) comply with the ban on conduct suspensions.
  • Revising the district’s code of conduct was associated with an increase in racial disproportionality at the district level, in part because schools with higher proportions of minority children were less likely to follow the new mandates.

Based on these findings, we draw three conclusions:

  1. Schools may respond very differently to district mandates, depending on their demographics, achievement levels, and prior suspension rates, as well as other factors bearing on policy implementation and compliance.
  2. Top-down mandates can have unintended consequences—even when they emanate from local decision makers rather than distant state or federal governments.
  3. Policymakers should respect the wisdom of practitioners when it comes to school discipline.

Simply changing a district’s policy on suspensions is unlikely to alter the underlying issues in tough schools. So trying to fix them with top-down decrees is impractical and potentially harmful, whether those decrees emanate from the district, the state, or the banks of the Potomac. If the goal is finding more effective ways to build a safe and strong school culture, it is far better to work with and support staff in high-poverty schools than to tie their hands with mandates that often work against them.

The Education Gadfly