School Discipline Study Cuts Two Ways

by James A. Bacon

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.

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7 responses to “School Discipline Study Cuts Two Ways

  1. re: ” Charlottesville-Mecklenburg” – ” Charlotte-Mecklenburg”

  2. re: ” 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?”

    Are you advocating an entire separate staffed school with extra higher paid “specialists”?

    Are you not advocating for “MO MOney”?

    These alternatives that you offer – do cost money, no?

    I’m actually NOT opposed to that as long as we are serious about not “warehousing” them – which is what does happen.

    We need to be serious about what we say is a solution.

    Why, for instance, do we not also suggest that non-public schools would do better like we do for other students?

  3. Whew! Big topic, inadequate basis for extrapolation.

    The basic problem I see is that whatever the schools say they are doing to classify based on discipline, they are accused of creating racially segregated instruction. And to try to avoid the resulting classroom “diversity” mess, those in school to really get an education (or their parents) try their damnedest to get into “higher-track,” “college prep,” “academic” courses.

  4. I don’t think there is a racial disparity problem per se until and unless we see larger numbers of black students labeled as “disruptive” – unless one wants to agree with the premise that, as a race, they tend to be more “disruptive” or some such racial focus.

    I THINK, at the very least, we might want to look at economically disadvantaged as a group.

    Even then – let’s suppose that there is an unexplainable higher number of blacks – does that relieve us of any duty to figure out how to deal with it or are we just content with saying that it’s a “black” issue and we give up – better to send them to prison or whatever?

    Anyone who is out of touch with middle and high schools these days who think all is calm and peaceful at largely white schools – needs to take a closer look. There are substantial discipline problems across the board amped up by social media. Bullies are running rampant at many schools and they are “equal opportunity” in terms of race.

    So – yes.. we need to separate them regardless of color and the kind and type of staff needed is not your vanilla College grads with teaching diplomas… and they are harder to find, more expensive and a different breed than regular teachers.

    In my mind an IDEAL job for folks with law enforcement or armed forces backgrounds.

  5. Back on the late 1960s, i attended an all boys, jesuit school near dc. Discipline was a given. We had a “Prefect of Discipline” — a Jesuit priest who had once been a Golden Gloves boxer from Baltimore. He was judicious and wise in his approach. But if some kid took a swing at him, he had no problem laying him across the salad bar at dinner. Screw the parents and lawsuits. Of course these were different times and they freely sold cigarettes to underage kids. Memories? Ronald Reagan ads?

    • “Back on the late 1960s, i attended an all boys, jesuit school near dc. Discipline was a given. We had a “Prefect of Discipline” — a Jesuit priest who had once been a Golden Gloves boxer from Baltimore.”

      He must have been Father Duggan or his immediate successor out Rockville Pike, cut from the same stern cloth. Those “Prefect of Disciplines” would have laughed out loud at such naive ill informed nonsense like this:

      “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.”

      Oh really!!!

      Only the marriage of too much money, too many experts, too much ideology, and special interest politics could produce findings so misleading, racist, and damaging. Only a sick and lost society would take such experts seriously. This crap rises around us like a poisonous cloud, obscuring senses.

      “T. S. Elliot belabored the obvious in saying, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

      The bright futures of more and more of our children are vanishing before us as we for so long ignore the facts and needs of their lives. And of our own. So “our cradles are emptying now as fast as our graves fill.” Each passing year accelerates our and their losses.

      Indeed, whole nations, faiths, and cultures are dying. But as always, the young and innocent are suffering now by far the most, as we waste their future and our own.

      Here, in this particular case, it is the young children who want to learn whose entire futures as being erased daily by the foolish teaching of reports such as these, and they are being erased along with those lost kids who are disrupting them, those lost before their schooling began, the ones we now refuse to bring to heal. The Father Duggans of an earlier world use to save those kids by the ten of thousands everywhere, all over.

      Why is this happening? Where has our wisdom gone? Our common sense of how the real world works, what or who erases it?

      Ideology, and the tyrants who wield it, erase our memories, our culture, our heroes, and our children finally, before erasing us all.

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