In January, we had the pleasure of featuring Matthew Steinberg, associate professor of education policy at George Mason University, on the Education Gadfly Show podcast. This episode was the second installment of our Research Deep Dive series, and our big topic of the day was school discipline reform. (Feel free to listen here or from your usual podcast platform.)
Disciplinary consequences, such as suspensions, are one method teachers and administrators use to manage classrooms and respond to student misbehavior, all in the name of maintaining a safe environment conducive to learning. Although the literature on school discipline is quite extensive, our discussion focused on the best and most recent research studies pertaining to the questions we wanted to explore, all of which are available below. We hope this brief summary provides some clarity on the current state and effects of school discipline reform. (And if you’re interested, be sure to check out our other research deep dives on teacher effectiveness and the impact of school closures.)
1. What are the academic risks associated with suspension? What are the challenges associated with generating convincing evidence on the effects of suspensions on student outcomes?
On average, students who receive suspensions have lower academic achievement, as measured by grades and state test scores, are less likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to be retained a grade level, among other adverse educational outcomes. One study in Philadelphia found that being suspended decreased students’ academic achievement on math and English language arts standardized tests by 0.05 and 0.04 standard deviations, respectively. Moreover, each additional day of suspension beyond the first day resulted in a larger decline in test scores. It’s important to note, though, that suspensions are not randomly assigned, so there’s a concern with estimating causal effect. That is, certain attributes that lead to student misbehavior and thus suspensions may be the same ones that contribute to other negative academic outcomes, so it’s not necessarily the suspensions per se that cause, for example, lower achievement or dropout.
- Lacoe, Johanna, and Matthew P. Steinberg. “Do suspensions affect student outcomes?“ Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 41, no. 1 (2019): 34–62.
2. What is the impact of misbehaving students on their peers?
Being in a classroom with misbehaving students has long-term effects on students’ educational and labor market outcomes, including on college attainment and earnings. For example, one study of Florida elementary schools found that exposure to an additional disruptive peer (in a class of twenty-five) lowered math and reading test scores in grades nine and ten by 0.02 standard deviations, and reduced earnings at age twenty-four to twenty-eight by 3 percent.
- Carrell, Scott E., Mark Hoekstra, and Elira Kuka. “The long-run effects of disruptive peers.” American Economic Review 108, no. 11 (2018): 3377–3415.
3. What are some evidence-based practices that schools implement to address school climate, and what are their impacts on students who misbehave and the overall school climate?
Restorative justice is intended to proactively improve relationships among students and staff and build a sense of community. It also involves using peaceful and nonpunitive approaches to address misbehavior. One study found that restorative justice had positive effects on student self-reported school climate and connectedness, peer attachment, and social skills. Likewise, another study found the intervention to improve overall school climate (as rated by teachers), decrease total suspension rates, and reduce disparities in suspension rates between black and white students and between low- and higher-income students. Moreover, there was no effect on student achievement.
- Acosta, Joie, Matthew Chinman, Patricia Ebener, Patrick S. Malone, Andrea Phillips, and Asa Wilks. “Evaluation of a Whole-School Change Intervention: Findings from a Two-Year Cluster-Randomized Trial of the Restorative Practices Intervention.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 48, no. 5 (2019): 876–890.
- Augustine, Catherine H., John Engberg, Geoffrey E. Grimm, Emma Lee, Elaine Lin Wang, Karen Christianson, and Andrea A. Joseph, Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions? An Evaluation of the Impact of Restorative Practices in a Mid-Sized Urban School District. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) aims to change school culture by setting clear behavioral expectations, providing intensive behavior supports, and designing a continuum of consequences for infractions. PBIS has shown positive effects in terms of reducing suspensions and disproportionality in suspensions. One study also found PBIS to improve perceived school safety and increase the proportion of third graders meeting or exceeding state reading assessment standards.
- Bradshaw, Catherine P., Mary M. Mitchell, and Philip J. Leaf. “Examining the effects of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on student outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 12, no. 3 (2010): 133–148.
- Horner, Robert H., George Sugai, Keith Smolkowski, Lucille Eber, Jean Nakasato, Anne W. Todd, and Jody Esperanza. “A randomized, wait-list controlled effectiveness trial assessing school-wide positive behavior support in elementary schools.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 11, no. 3 (2009): 133–144.
4. To what extent are states and districts trying to reduce the use of suspensions? What effects do such reforms have on school and student outcomes?
As of five years ago, twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have revised their laws to require or recommend that schools limit the use of exclusionary discipline, implement nonpunitive discipline strategies relying on behavioral interventions, and provide support services, such as counseling and dropout prevention for at-risk students. About a quarter of the largest school districts in the country have made explicit efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline practices by introducing policy to prohibit suspensions for certain misconducts.
- Steinberg, Matthew P., and Johanna Lacoe. “What do we know about school discipline reform? Assessing the alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.” Education Next 17, no. 1 (2017): 44–53.
The effects of these reforms vary depending on the levels of implementation and context. One reform in Philadelphia that prohibited out-of-school suspensions for classroom disorder infractions was found to improve attendance for students who received suspensions pre-reform. For their peers, math achievement and attendance were unaffected in schools that eliminated out-of-school suspensions for classroom disorder. But in schools that did not fully implement the policy, achievement and attendance declined. In contrast, a reform in New York City to replace suspensions with less disruptive interventions saw a rise in math and reading scores, although this result had more to do with improvements in school culture, as measured by the quality of student-teacher relationships and perceptions of school safety, than with eliminating suspensions.
- Craig, Ashley C., and David C. Martin. Discipline Reform, School Culture, and Student Achievement. Unpublished working paper, 2019.
- Steinberg, Matthew P., and Johanna Lacoe. “Reforming school discipline: school-level policy implementation and the consequences for suspended students and their peers.” American Journal of Education 125, no. 1 (2018): 29–77.