High school students who get suspended out of school are significantly less likely to earn academic credits in the following year—and their peers get no academic benefit from their absence.
Those findings come from a new American Institutes of Research study that looked at more than a decade of discipline and academic data from New York City public schools, the largest district in the country, with more than a million students.
“You can’t replicate the classroom experience for someone who’s going to return to the classroom by removing him or her to some other place,” said David Osher, an AIR researcher and co-author of the study, “because the nature of good approaches to learning in schools these days is such that students are interacting with each other. That’s one of the reasons why we find out that kids who are suspended, when they return to school continue to do badly, because they’ve missed the dynamic of what’s going on in the classroom.”
These results build on a growing base of evidence that the use of so-called exclusionary discipline—removing students from classes for misbehavior via suspensions and expulsions—can backfire for educators hoping to improve student learning and get at-risk kids back on track.
Researchers led by Christina LiCalsi, a principal researcher at AIR, and Osher analyzed data for middle and high school students in the Big Apple from 2009 to 2018, including discipline actions, academic performance, school climate and safety, and ultimate graduation rates. They compared the outcomes of similar students who had in- and out-of-school suspensions. They also looked at outcomes for students with suspensions of varying lengths, from one to three days in school and one to 20 days out of school.
Their results, and those of other recent studies, highlight common myths and misunderstandings about how exclusionary discipline affects students.
Myth: Suspensions improve student behavior
Middle school students in the AIR study became more likely to misbehave in the future when they were suspended out of school rather than in school, and when they were suspended for longer periods of time.
“In out-of-school suspension, you are removing kids from the socialization of the school and ... you’re placing them potentially in a different environment at home alone or even out on the street with their friends,” Osher said.
Myth: Suspensions help get at-risk students ‘back on track’
Both AIR and a separate recent study by the Civil Rights Project find time out of class for suspensions caused damage to students’ academic progress similar to any other absences from class.
For students with multiple and long suspensions, Osher noted, “they could end up having chronic absenteeism, just from the suspensions, even if they don’t miss any other days of school.”
AIR researchers found high school students who were suspended out of school were 3 percentage points less likely to earn academic credit in math and English/language arts the following year, compared to similar students who were disciplined in school. The longer the suspension, the worse its effect on students’ long-term academic prospects. Students who were suspended 21 days or more over the length of the study were 20 percent less likely to graduate high school in four years.
Myth: Excluding a troublemaker from class improves learning for the rest of the students
“That’s the argument that you hear, right: that it might be bad for the student in question [to be suspended], but what about all of the other students in the class? That’s removing the bad apple from the bunch ... But that’s not what we found,” LiCalsi said.
The study found that the number and severity of students’ suspensions had no effects on the behavior or academic performance of their peers in high school. In middle school, more and longer student suspensions were actually associated with more absenteeism and lower math and reading standardized test scores for their peers.
“When students feel that discipline is inconsistent or unfair, it gives them a more negative view of the schooling environment overall,” LiCalsi said. “That’s the case, I think, for middle schoolers, especially. In high school, you’re more likely to see students disengage or drop out ... but in middle school, they don’t have the option to drop out so it plays out differently. It’s having a negative effect on their feelings of connection and belonging, fairness and justice within their school that might be having some negative impacts on their behavior.”
Myth: The severity of a student’s behavior drives suspensions
In 2017-18, the most recent year of federal data, more than 2.6 million students nationwide received at least one suspension in school, and another 2.5 million served at least one suspension out of school.
Suspensions continue to disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities or trauma, even when they engage in the same misbehaviors as their peers.
AIR’s study, like others, finds that exclusionary discipline hurt academic and behavior outcomes for students of all races, including those with and without disabilities. But students of color, particularly Black students, were significantly more likely to have more and longer suspensions than white students.
Moreover, a history of trauma can significantly increase a student’s likelihood of being suspended. A separate decade-long discipline study found that students who’d had multiple adverse childhood experiences—severe traumas including neglect and abuse or a parent’s death, incarceration, mental illness, or substance abuse—were nearly four times as likely to be suspended or expelled as students of similar backgrounds who did not have a history of trauma.
Administrators going into the third school year of the pandemic may face significantly more behavior problems related to children coping with trauma, but exclusionary discipline may also create difficult legal and academic issues. One recent analysis of discipline in Louisiana school districts found that several schools’ decisions to suspend students from virtual school based on behavior during videoconferences or items seen in the students’ homes during class have sparked lawsuits.
New Orleans civil rights attorney Victor Jones argued that as hybrid and remote learning continue to be used this year, school district leaders need to develop separate discipline policies for virtual classrooms, both to protect students’ privacy and to limit the amount of class time they miss during a period where instructional time is already limited.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students In The Long Term