Almost seven years ago, the School District of Philadelphia revised its student discipline policy, instructing schools not to suspend students for certain types of nonviolent behavior such as failing to follow classroom rules or making obscene gestures. To examine what happened after the policy changed, Mathematica’s Johanna Lacoe teamed up with Matthew Steinberg, an education researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. What they found provides the strongest evidence to date that when students are suspended, their academic performance declines after the suspension. They also found that Philadelphia schools varied in how much they complied with the district’s change in policy, and that the variation matters because it might negatively affect the suspended students’ peers, too. One major takeaway from the research is that if schools opt to implement the sort of discipline reform being tried in Philadelphia, they need support from the district to do it well.
On this episode of On the Evidence, I spoke with Lacoe about school suspension research in Philadelphia and what it might mean for the future of school discipline. Click here to listen to the full interview. You can also read an edited excerpt of the interview in the following transcript.
How many papers have you and Matthew Steinberg published about suspensions in Philadelphia so far and what were they about?
We have published four. The first paper that we wrote was a state of the research on school discipline reform, summarizing what we know from the research about what works in school discipline reform. That was published in EducationNext, and it really set the stage for the rest of our work. It highlighted several places that would really be helpful to have more information. One of those was that we don’t have good evidence about what the consequences of being suspended are for students. [Another gap in the literature] was that a lot of districts across the country are just recently adopting discipline reforms similar to the one in Philadelphia, [but] very few of those reform efforts had been evaluated rigorously. Even if they’re very well intended, we don’t know if they work.
What’s the larger education policy context here? How common is it to have out-of-school suspensions for lower-level misconduct, and what’s changed over time? Is this becoming a more relevant topic now than, say, 10 years ago?
Many people believe that schools use exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, too frequently. A lot of people believe that schools are overusing these responses and that there are bad outcomes for students who are disciplined, but we don’t have a lot of evidence about exactly what those outcomes are.
This has become a big policy issue. Part of the reason is around [the] idea of zero tolerance discipline policy in schools, [which] was born out of a policy saying that guns aren’t allowed in schools. The policy was broadened to include other infractions that are less serious than bringing a gun onto campus. What we’ve seen recently is zero tolerance for any misconduct, things like failure to remove a hat or to turn off a cell phone or to wear a school uniform when required. These aren’t serious violent offenses, these are conduct-related offenses that might contribute to order in the classroom.
One of the main goals of our research was to shed light onto how suspensions for these types of infractions are affecting students and whether there is any difference in being suspended for the low-level infractions than being suspended for something more serious like assault.
We’ve seen over time that suspensions for low-level misconduct infractions have increased a lot and have become a large share of total suspensions. The question is, if students are negatively impacted by suspensions, is this the best behavioral response to low-level misconduct?
Another [factor] motivating our work is that some people believe that removing disruptive students from classrooms is beneficial for all of the kids who stay in the classroom. We didn’t have a lot of good information about whether that was the case.
The press coverage about your research placed it in the context of the Obama administration’s stance on use of suspensions for low-level misconduct. How did the Obama administration’s position affect the way educators think about school discipline policies?
The [Obama] administration published guidance acknowledging that disproportionately suspending youth of color and youth with disabilities was a key contributor to differences in achievement for those groups and encouraging schools to focus on disparities in school discipline. It was a key focus and potentially an issue, particularly for students with disabilities, [in that] removing them from the classroom might actually go against the rights that they have to receive an education. So the Obama administration came out with guidance encouraging schools to focus on removing disparities and discipline and the U.S. Department of Education [under the Trump administration recently rolled] back that guidance.
Your research focuses on the Philadelphia School district in a specific time period, before and after the 2011–2012 school year. Why Philadelphia, and why those specific years?
The school district of Philadelphia is the eighth largest public school district in the country, and it’s a very diverse district. There’s a lot that you can learn from Philadelphia that would be applicable to other districts around the country. My coauthor had a relationship with the district and asked [district staff] if they’d be interested in learning about the impact of their discipline policy change. We were interested in focusing on the years surrounding that policy change to get a sense of whether and how suspension use changed before and after the implementation of the policy.
What are the implications for other school districts that might be considering a reform similar to what Philadelphia adopted?
District-level policy changes may be well intended, but without sufficient resources, guidance, and support, schools may not effectively implement those changes. In fact, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education found that schools felt limited by resource constraints in their abilities to implement alternatives to suspension. [They also found that] while most of the principals believe that suspension is detrimental, and they agree with the school district of Philadelphia’s goal of moving away from exclusionary practices, teachers were far less likely to express those similar views.
How did the policy affect racial groups differently?
We do find that classroom disorder suspensions for black students decline relative to their white peers following the policy change. So the policy did what it was supposed to, right? It reduced disproportionality in those types of suspensions that the policy targeted. However, the reduction in the classroom disorder suspension rate for black students relative to their white peers didn’t translate into an overall reduction in the use of suspension. Black students were actually suspended for other more serious types of infractions at higher rates following the policy change. The main takeaway is that preventing unintended consequences for students of color should be a primary focus for districts moving forward with any type of discipline reform.
Going forward, what new questions do you have about school suspensions after doing this research?
We’d love to better understand what schools do to comply with district policies like the one that passed in Philadelphia. I’m doing a bit of that work now through the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL), the REL in the state of Maryland. Maryland has undertaken an ambitious effort to reduce disproportionality in school discipline for students of color and students with disabilities. In my role through the REL, I conduct data analysis to help the state measure disproportionality [and to] identify schools in need of support. We’re also helping the state develop a survey for principals and teachers to understand what changes they put into place in response to the policy. So we’re hoping to learn about what schools do and what are the challenges they face when trying to make concrete changes in this area.
Steinberg, Matthew P., and Johanna Lacoe. “Reforming School Discipline: School-Level Policy Implementation and the Consequences for Suspended Students and Their Peers.” American Journal of Education, vol. 125, no. 1, November 2018, pp. 29–77.
Lacoe, Johanna, and Matthew P. Steinberg. “Do Suspensions Affect Student Outcomes?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, August 2018.
Lacoe, Johanna, and Matthew P. Steinberg. “Rolling Back Zero Tolerance: The Effect of Discipline Policy Reform on Suspension Usage and Student Outcomes.” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 93, no. 2, March 2018, pp. 207–227.
Steinberg, Matthew P., and Johanna Lacoe. “The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia.” Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, December 2017.
Steinberg, Matthew P., and Johanna Lacoe. “What Do We Know About School Discipline Reform? Assessing the Alternatives to Suspensions and Expulsions.” EducationNext, vol. 17, no. 1, Winter 2017.
Gray, Abigail, Philip Sirinides, Ryan Fink, Adrianne Flack, Tesla DuBois, Katrina Morrison, and Kirsten Hill. “Discipline in Context: Suspension, Climate, and PBIS in the School District of Philadelphia.” Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, November 2017.