School Climate & Safety Opinion

Rethinking Suspensions to Keep Kids Learning

By Jane Sundius & Faith Connolly — August 02, 2011 6 min read
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Much of the discussion about education reform today centers on increasing the time that students spend learning. Extended days, Saturday school, summer learning programs, and even year-round-school initiatives all reflect the urgency of time on task.

Yet many school districts are frittering away valuable instructional time with discipline codes that literally push the most vulnerable kids out of school. Last month’s report on nearly 1 million Texas students underscores the consequences of such strict discipline. More than half the students had been suspended at least once between 7th and 12th grade. Those suspended repeatedly were more likely to become involved in the juvenile-justice system, be retained a grade, and drop out of high school.

They also missed a lot of school: an average of two days for out-of-school suspension, 27 days for placement in an alternative school, and 73 days in a juvenile-justice program. This illustrates the high cost of suspension on instructional time and, by extension, learning.

In Baltimore this spring, a group of researchers decided to take a careful look at this very issue. What the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, or BERC, found in its analysis confirms with data what progressive educators have asserted for years: Suspension policy is instructional policy.

First, some background.

Baltimore recently has gained attention for cutting its dropout rate in half in just three years and actually bringing students back into school. Specifically, Maryland’s state department of education reports that the Baltimore district’s dropout rate declined from 9.37 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 4.07 percent in 2009-10. Middle school absences have dropped significantly, as well. Suspensions are part of that story.

Three years ago, the school district handed out suspensions liberally to deal with a challenging student population that often performs well below grade level. In the 2006-07 school year, more than one in 10 students (of approximately 84,000 in the district at the time) were suspended from school, missing a total of 106,285 days of school to suspensions, BERC found. That is the equivalent of 590 students missing a full year of school.

Nearly two-thirds of these suspensions were handed down for disrespect, insubordination, disruption, attendance issues, using cellphones in school, and refusing to obey school policies, according to an earlier analysis. These are hardly offenses that threaten school safety, but the missed days threatened the students’ chances to succeed in school.

Suspensions, especially for minor rule infractions, unnecessarily create more absences, more time out of the classroom, more chances that students will fall further behind."

Research backs up what common sense tells us: Too many absences drag down student achievement and, by 6th grade, begin to predict the likelihood that a student will eventually drop out of school. Suspensions, especially for minor rule infractions, unnecessarily create more absences, more time out of the classroom, more chances that students will fall further behind. Typically, the students missing school to suspension are the students who can least afford to miss valuable learning experiences. They need more time in school, not less.

At the urging of child advocates and local philanthropies, Baltimore began to examine its discipline code and suspension numbers. Under the leadership of the city’s schools chief, Andrés Alonso, the Baltimore schools took three key steps to limit suspensions, sparking some concerns about school safety, but ultimately delivering tens of thousands more days of instruction.

The first step: Alonso prevented school administrators from suspending students for more than five days without express permission from the central office. This approach succeeded in strengthening student due-process protection, ensuring that serious incidents were reviewed beyond the school level. It also spurred principals to examine just what they were doing to support and intervene with students before reaching the point of suspension. The Texas research found that most suspensions came at the discretion of principals and local discipline codes, with a wide variety of consequences for bad behavior among schools.

Next, Alonso accelerated the work of the internal-external team to revise the school district’s code of conduct. Led by his director of student support, the team rewrote the code to provide more specific guidance to principals and a wider range of consequences available for all infractions. Truancy, for instance, can no longer be punished with suspension. This guidance ensured that all schools were enforcing similar consequences for the same type of offenses, and that they were using suspensions as a last resort, after employing other consequences and interventions to teach children new behaviors.

Preventive measures and alternatives to suspension are key elements in making this different approach work. Now, Baltimore’s schools more often use tactics such as in-school suspensions, after-school detention, and mentoring. Violent students are referred to anger-management or conflict-resolution sessions or, in some cases, mental-health counseling.

Finally, the city schools embarked on a three-year process of data analysis, monitoring, and action called Safety STAT. Each Friday, a cross-functional team of central-office staff members, school principals, and school leadership teams meet to review all suspensions within the district for the previous week and to hear from principals about what’s working and what needs to be tweaked related to discipline. This attention to detail allows staff members to spot trends and bring additional support to schools when needed.

The changes signaled a new attitude and set of expectations: Suspension remains a necessary tool, but one that is used when students continue to misbehave or when their behavior is violent. The changes also reinforce the value of instructional time, of keeping struggling students on task so that they succeed in school.

Three years later, BERC’s analysis shows the extraordinary difference the new suspension policy has made.

• Instructional days missed to suspensions have dropped by more than a third, from 106,285 in the 2006-07 school year to 70,870 in the 2009-2010 school year. That’s still 394 student-years, so there’s work to be done, but it’s a significant improvement.

• The number of students suspended dropped from 9,858 to 6,554 during that same four-school-year period. This translates into a reduction from 10.7 percent of all K-12 students in the Baltimore public schools to 7.2 percent.

• Not only did the number of students drop, but the number of suspension events also declined, from 16,757 to 9,712, a whopping 42 percent decrease.

We know that disruptive students can affect education for everyone in the same classroom. But kicking these kids out of school interrupts their own education, making it hard to complete their coursework, and it fails to teach them new, more appropriate behavior.

BERC’s research shows us that high suspension rates reduce instruction time, typically for the most at-risk students. It also reveals that discipline policies are not just safety policies, but that they are instructional policies as well. Given Baltimore’s success and the importance of increased learning time, school districts in Texas and elsewhere ought to consider similar tactics.

We’re all after the same critical goals: More kids in class. More learning. More graduates.

How we deal with disruptions and minor misbehaviors can go a long way toward that goal, because how we handle suspensions says a lot about what we think about learning. Too many districts’ suspension policies say, “We care about learning except when students are misbehaving.”

And that is a message that is failing all of our students, not just the ones being suspended.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Rethinking Suspensions to Keep Kids Learning


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