There has been a long and unresolved debate over the impact of school disciplinary policies on student achievement. In recent years in Virginia the discussion has focused on the existence of a “school to prison” pipeline created by referring students with disciplinary issues to the criminal justice system. A new study finds that removing disruptive students from classrooms has a slight beneficial effect on educational outcomes for some students, but the positives are more than outweighed by the negative affect on the students who are disciplined.
“The negative impact of attending schools with higher conditional suspension rates is largest for minorities and males, suggesting that strict suspension policies expand pre-existing gaps in educational attainment and incarceration,” write the authors of an National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, “The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions and Adult Crime.” “We also find some limited evidence of positive effects on the academic achievement of white male students, which highlights the potential to increase the achievement of some subgroups by removing disruptive peers.”
The authors reached the conclusion based on a large and sudden boundary change in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, schools in 2002, in which a large number of students switched from schools with tough disciplinary policies and schools with more lax policies and vice versa.
The study’s conclusions support the idea that a school-to-prison pipeline does exist and does aggravate disparities in racial outcomes. I have acknowledged that exposing children to the criminal justice system may worsen outcomes for those students, but I have argued the negative impact is outweighed by the benefits to students who don’t misbehave.
Sadly (for me), the NBER study finds that the beneficial impact is a modest one.
I have a couple of reactions. First, it’s just one study, based on changes in one North Carolina school system that took place 17 years ago. One could argue that classroom discipline had deteriorated markedly in public schools across the country in the intervening 17 years, and that the benefits of removing disruptive students would be considerably higher today — especially in schools most prone to disruption. I think that’s a very real possibility, and I think that counter-hypothesis warrants follow-up investigation.
Second, the study does not explore the idea that there might be an ideal mix of disciplinary policies that is less strict than arresting and suspending student offenders on one extreme and pursuing a therapeutic, restorative-justice approach regime, which are are doing in Virginia now, on the other extreme.
For example, would it make sense to place disruptive students in a segregated classroom (segregated on the basis of behavior, not race) where (a) they continue to learn, (b) they don’t disrupt the classrooms of students who are willing to behave, and (c) they can benefit from instructors who specially trained in dealing with difficult students?
I am not at all committed to the idea that referring disruptive students to law enforcement authorities is a good practice (except in extreme cases), or even that giving them long out-of-school suspensions is a good idea. I am open to the idea that Virginia public schools need to reform their disciplinary practices. However, I have seen nothing to dissuade me from the idea that removing disruptive students from classrooms is a harmful idea. Indeed, the NBER study provides modest confirmation of my view.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that the wholesale implementation of restorative justice disciplinary practices in Virginia public schools coincides with a decline in standardized test scores. The overlap between the two may be a coincidence — but it may not be. I predicted that just such a decline would occur, and no one has yet to offer a plausible alternative explanation.
The NBER study supports the idea that “strict” disciplinary practices of 17 years ago helped contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline. But I believe the disciplinary pendulum has swung too far to the side of laxity, and there is nothing in the study to dissuade me from that belief.There are currently no comments highlighted.