Corrected: An earlier version of this article misidentified researcher Jane Lincove. She is a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Keeping students who misbehave in the classroom can improve their academic and social outcomes without disrupting learning for their classmates, new research concludes.
Researchers from the Universities of Chicago and Maryland and New York University highlighted evidence on the benefits of district and state restrictions on exclusionary discipline as part of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness conference here on Wednesday.
The studies come as states like Kentucky, Nevada, and West Virginia have started to roll back bans on exclusionary discipline following spikes in student misbehavior and social-emotional issues in recent years.
Studies of classroom effects of changes to discipline policy are crucial, said Rachel Perera, a governance fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution of the Brookings Institute.
“In these political debates happening in state houses and at the district level, this notion that eliminating suspensions will create more disruptive schools is so prevalent,” Perera said. “And I don’t think that the research is there to suggest that that’s going to happen.”
Problems of suspension
It’s largely accepted that discipline that takes students out of the classroom can lead to long-term problems for them. Studies find that students suspended from school are more likely to fall behind academically, repeat grades, or even drop out of school. Students exposed to exclusionary discipline are also at higher risk of being involved in crime or spending more time out of work as adults.
Also, some students are disproportionately more likely to be pulled from the classroom for misbehavior than others: boys, students of color, low-income students, and those with disabilities. Black boys, for example, are more likely to be suspended for longer periods than their white peers, even for the same behavior.
“On school discipline, it’s important to say that these infractions and the decision about whether someone’s suspended is not necessarily an objective description of the student’s behavior,” said Jane Lincove, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “These decisions are all made at the local level by people who make decisions for all sorts of reasons.”
Growing evidence of the downsides of exclusionary discipline led to a movement against so-called zero tolerance policies. By 2019, 17 states restricted or banned suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent infractions like truancy or defiance, and 16 states, including Maryland, banned nearly all suspensions for some grades.
Lincove and colleagues tracked suspensions and academic achievement of 300,000 Maryland students in grades K-5 from 2014-15 through 2018-19—both before and after the state’s ban on nearly all K-2 suspensions.
They found suspensions out of school dropped by about a third for students in those early grades in the first years after the state ban, without a corresponding bump in in-school suspensions, and without changes to test scores in those grades. Discipline gaps between low-income and wealthier students also closed.
While students of color saw significant drops in suspensions among K-2 students, the state policy did not close discipline gaps between white students and those of color. That’s because the number of suspensions dropped roughly equally across racial groups.
Alternatives to exclusion
In general, the researchers said school suspensions are related less to state policy changes and more to how much support teachers have for using alternative discipline approaches, such as restorative justice, which focuses on repairing interpersonal harm.
As of 2022, the Brookings Institution found more than three-quarters of schools nationwide continue to allow teachers to suspend students for misbehaviors like talking back.
In a separate study of Chicago public schools, Anjali Adukia, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, and her colleagues tracked the implementation of the district’s restorative justice program.
Over a decade, schools there that implemented restorative practices saw an 18 percent decline in out of school suspensions, without an increase in in-school suspensions, compared to schools that did not use restorative practices. There were no drops in math or reading scores as more students stayed in the classroom, she found, and Black boys saw significant improvements in school attendance and math scores—equal to closing 15 percent of the black-white gap in math scores in Chicago.
Adukia also found there were 35 percent fewer in-school arrests and 15 percent fewer arrests of students in the communities surrounding the schools using restorative practices, compared to nonparticipating schools.
Whether a change in discipline policies was prompted by district action or a state ban, however, researchers agreed that support and training for teachers in how to implement alternative discipline approaches are essential.
“I think people are generally bought into the idea that suspensions don’t work,” Perera of Brookings said. “But understanding how to transition to restorative practices—which is a very different philosophy from a punitive orientation—is not just a change in policy. We’re doing things very different from how we’ve been doing things for a long time.”
Adukia agreed. “Classroom management and discipline represent one of the hardest parts of a teacher’s job,” she said.
“You can’t just tell teachers to be restorative. ... When [teachers] are new at this, it’s scary. Somebody just hit another kid and now you are doing a [restorative justice] circle; what if that goes really bad? They’re members of rival gangs. What on Earth are you supposed to do here?” she said.
The participating teachers in Chicago received two to three days a week of coaching over a year in how to implement the practices—which focus on repairing relationships and helping the misbehaving student take the perspective of those their behavior hurt.
Adukia said coaches helped teachers find learning opportunities in student misbehaviors. For example, she recalled, one student who drew on a school wall had to talk to and shadow the school janitor who cleaned it up.
“It was about understanding logical consequences,” she said. “The student said, ‘I just thought I was having fun,’ but the janitor said, ‘You know, it took me the whole afternoon [to clean off the graffiti] and I was late to my kid’s basketball game because I had to finish.’”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as Restrictions on Suspending Students From School Show Evidence of Being Effective