New Research Suggests Practical Ways to Make School Discipline, Access Equitable

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 14, 2018 10 min read
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Sometimes small changes in how school districts approach policy—including how behaviors are labeled, which interventions schools are offered, and how teachers are trained to use them—can help break down the school-to-prison pipeline and put disadvantaged students on a better academic trajectory.

In a symposium here at the annual meeting of the American Association of Educational Research, civil rights experts discussed practical ways that states and districts can reduce discipline disparities for students of color, especially black students, who are suspended from school at nearly four times the rate of their white peers.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is characterized by an overrepresentation of black

students—specifically black males. And that overrepresentation has yet to be explained by enrollment, by socioeconomic status, or by higher rates of misconduct,” said R. Nicole Johnson-Ahorlu, the director for education and juvenile justice research at the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There’s lots of work ... that leads us to believe that discrimination is playing some type of role here.”

Education systems have been moving to address discipline disparities since the Education and Justice departments jointly issued guidance under the Obama administration suggesting policies that lead to disproportionate discipline for one racial group could violate civil rights laws. (Educaton Secretary Betsy DeVos has since suggested she wants to roll back this guidance.)

“By 2015, 22 states and [the District of Columbia] revised laws limiting the use of exclusionary [discipline] practices,” noted Chris Curran, an assistant professor of public policy of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Maryland was an early mover on this.”

Following a lawsuit over racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions, Maryland changed its state discipline policy, using a five-tier framework for gauging the severity of a student’s behavior and finding appropriate responses. For example, misbehaviors such as cutting class or disrespecting staff could be considered levels 1 or 2, while bringing a weapon to school could be a level 5.

Curran and Maida Finch of Salisbury University compared the discipline codes of the state’s 20 districts both in 2013-14, just before the state guidance, and 2015-16, a year after the guidance. They compared both the the variety of school responses available for 27 different student misbehaviors, as well as which options schools most often actually used.

The researchers found that after the state changed its discipline policy, school districts added more than five new options to respond to the average offense for students of all races, with the most new options offered for serious offenses, such as property destruction, arson, and drug-related behaviors. School administrators became significantly more likely, for example, to refer special education students to their student support team, have the student enter into a “behavior contract,” or remove them from extracurricular clubs or sports as punishment rather thaan suspend them out of school. However, some schools also shifted from out-of-school suspensions to in-school suspensions, which still often remove students from class.

“Changes in what we put in schools’ codes of conduct can have very real effects on students,” Curran said. “Instead of saying well, a fight automatically goes to a suspension because that’s the only option listed there, they may have four or five options to respond.”

Moreover, the researchers found districts with majority white and majority black and HIspanic students were equally likely to provide more options for dealing with student misbehavior. However, there was not much consistency in how schools actually responded to specific misbehaviors. For example, while schools responded to problems like alcohol use on campus or fighting with less-exclusionary discipline on average in 2015-16, they responded to tardiness and dress code violations more severely. The researchers are still digging into why.

Identifying Successful Districts

Many states and districts are working to discipline students more equitably—but very few have made significant progress in doing so. One team of civil rights researchers are trying to find and learn from those needles in the proverbial haystack.

Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, and Russell Skiba, the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University-Bloomington, analyzed federal civil rights data on 6,000 school districts to identify those that had showed more equitable discipline, while also improving academic achievement for minority students and the school population overall. Each district selected had to have a significant population of poor and minority students, with high school graduation rates above 60 percent and no schools identified as low-achieving under their state’s accountability system. The district had to have out-of-school suspension rates for black students, low-income students, and those with disabilities below 5 percent in elementary schools and below 10 percent in middle and high schools—both significantly below the national average rates of suspensions for these students.

“Oftentimes we’re talking about the need to change a policy or practice ... but we don’t know enough about what that actually entails,” Losen said. “We wanted to make sure what looked good on paper actually represented conscious efforts to make changes.”

The researchers narrowed down to three school districts, which they have not yet named—two among the 100 largest districts nationwide, and one with about 3,000 students—and conducted in-depth case studies with some 40 administrators, educators, parents, students,school board members, and community groups.

“It wasn’t just about programs and practices;we found a broad range of programs and practices districts were doing that seemed to be effective,” Losen said, but added that in districts effective in lowering suspension rates, “the focus was on the well-being of the kids and achieving strong academic outcomes, and the discipline [reform] was embedded in that.”

The researchers did find that all three districts worked closely with their teachers’ unions and provided time, training, and resources to teachers on alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice or positive behavioral interventions and supports. More equitable districts also made clear changes to their board policies, and regularly used data to identify and address discipline and academic gaps in schools.

“People talk about policies being delivered top-down or bottom up, but we found that was a false dichotomy. In the districts that were effective in reducing their discipline disparities, all three districts had made very clear changes to their district policy intended to reduce the number of students being suspended,” Losen said. “But they also brought everyone together. They worked with the teachers’ union and police—and the teachers’ unions were positive about the changes.”

Digging into Causes of Disparities

But what happens when a district has committed to equity and reduced exclusionary discipline—but racial gaps remain?

One Florida district has faced exactly that problem; in spite of halving the number of suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, the district still found black students experienced such discipline at higher rates than their white peers. It partnered with researchers from the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA to figure out why.

“Discrimination, in essence, is the disruption of objective decisionmaking,” the center’s Johnson-Ahorlu said. Discipline, she said, involves a series of staff decisions about whether misbehavior has occurred and whether and how the school will respond. “It’s a process of decisions, and if those decisions can be confounded in any way by prejudices, biases, or anything else, we want to be thinking about it.”

The team has identifies three issues that can increase the risk that conscious or unconsious bias will influence school discipline:

  • Ambiguity: when a rule or situation is open to multiple interpretations. For example, in a review of 11 state statutes, the center found the misbehavior “battery” and the much more serious “physical attack” had nearly identical definitions, but different levels of puishment.
  • Discretion: when staff or administrators have significant freedom to decide how to respond. For example, while the district provided a matrix of different student behaviors and options to respond to them, principals had the option to ignore the guidance at their own discretion—and some teachers and leaders weren’t even aware of it.
  • Accountability structure: When accountability for school discipline relies on the disciplined student or his parents to complain—and often go through multiple rounds of paperwork and appeals to different groups—there is a higher likelihood of discipline disparities than when the district uses discipline data to identify problematic patterns, or when it provides checks and balances to require staff to explain their disciplinary decisions in writing or have them reviewed by a separate group before they become permanent.

The center and the district are now exploring how differences in how students experience school, the social climate in different buildings, and other factors can also affect discipline rates. The researchers expect a final report later this year.

One constant at this AERA meeting is the search for ways in which evidence can help schools become more equitable. Among the studies expected later this weekend:

Diversifying Advanced Placement

Officials at the suburban Lexington-Richland School District 5, like many districts nationwide, noticed black students were underenrolled in its high school Advanced Placement courses. Tami Richardson, the gifted coordinator for the district, Missy Wall-Mitchell, the district’s accountability director, and Mirriam Ewaida, the content director for K-12 for Hanover Research, used administrative data to map the course-taking of students identified as gifted in middle school through high school.

They found, in a study to be presented here on Sunday, that black students who had taken honors algebra in 8th grade were less likely than their white peers to continue in advanced coursework in high school, even after controlling for students’ grades in the classes.

“If black students persisted in the AP track, they were fine; they passed the AP exams at the same rate as their white peers,” Ewaida said. “But if these students fell off track in 9th or 10th grades, they were less likely to get back on track than their white peers.”

They found both white and black students were most likely to leave the AP track between grades 9 and 10, and the district plans to change both its honors prerequisites in high school and the supports it gives students during the freshman transition year, as well as to train teachers to reach out to students who struggle in freshman and sophomore advanced courses. Ewaida said the district and researchers are following up to determine if the changes help diversify classes in the district.

Improving District Policy

Another study, also to be presented Sunday, suggests districts should also consider what official guidance their school boards give staff about how to make equitable resource and academic decisions for students.

Clinton Page, the chief accountability officer for the 15,000-student Alexandria city schools in Virginia, and Leila Nuland, managing content director for K-12 for Hanover Research, compared Alexandria’s school board policies with those of eight other districts with similar size and student demographics. The researchers looked at equity in areas including legal mandates, research-based evidence, resources, decision-making, and accountability criteria for schools.

They found only two of the districts had any explicit policies on equity at all; where districts had even more general equity policies, they typically revolved around basic resources, but did not discuss strategies or guidelines on how administrators make decisions on equity issues in schools. One district did explicitly require “substantially equivalent opportunities at each building,” including materials, staff, and student achievement.

“Sometimes it’s hard to pause and look back at your policies and draw a direct line between your policies and your practice,” Nuland said. “If you don’t have explicit language related to equity, then you don’t have the right structure in place to facilitate an equitable learning environment.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.