It’s a belief repeated every day by teachers, principals and parents of rule-abiding children: Suspending disruptive students will allow the rest of the class to settle down and learn. But a new, large study calls this rationale into question.
The study is believed to be the first to look closely at the academic performance of individual students who have never been suspended, but who attend schools where others are suspended. After tracking nearly 17,000 students over three years, two Midwestern researchers found that high rates of school suspensions harmed math and reading scores for non-suspended students.
The relationship was inverse: The higher the number of suspensions during the course of a semester, the lower the non-suspended students’ scores on end-of-semester reading and math evaluations, said Brea L. Perry, a sociologist at Indiana University and co-author of the study with Edward W. Morris, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky. The study, which was published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal American Sociological Review, involved students in 17 middle schools and high schools in a Kentucky school district.
The higher the number of suspensions during the course of a semester, the lower the non-suspended students’ scores on end-of-semester reading and math evaluations, the study found.
“What surprised us the most was this had not really been studied this way before,” Perry said. The findings suggest that high levels of suspensions “can have a very negative effect on those so-called ‘good apples,’ or rule-abiding students,” she said.
The findings were “robust,” Morris said, even when the results were controlled for the level of violence and disruption at schools, school funding and student-teacher ratios.
A low or average rate of suspensions appeared to have no academic impact on the non-suspended students, Perry said. “It only becomes harmful when schools are above average in their use of suspensions,” she said.
The reason, theorized Morris, whose work has focused on school environments and cultures, might have to do with the levels of anxiety and disconnection created in students when their peers are subject to frequent suspensions, often for issues such as dress code violations or insubordination.
“When you are in a very punitive environment, you’re getting the message that the school is focusing on crime control and behavior control,” he said. “Schools should really be about relationships.”
“This is a new addition to the research, and a positive one,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and editor of the new book, Closing the School Discipline Gap. Other studies have found that when schools reduce suspension rates and institute alternative methods of resolving conflict, academic achievement goes up, Losen said. But he said he wasn’t aware of a study that specifically examined the academic effects of suspensions on non-suspended students over time.
“The studies I’ve seen are not of this magnitude,” said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director for the Public Counsel Law Center, a California public interest law firm that has been promoting alternative disciplinary measures.
Faer said that when she speaks about school discipline practices to groups, the number one comment from the audience is that suspensions are necessary because “when you remove bad kids, it helps other kids learn.” This new study, she said, takes research about the importance of a positive school culture, and the harms of an excessively punitive culture, “to a whole different level.”
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled a growing commitment on the part of the state to find more positive approaches to disciplining students, most notably through his signature on a new law, Assembly Bill 420, which limits the use of “willful defiance” as a reason to suspend students. The term is defined as disruptive behavior or defiance of authority. More than 700,000 school suspensions were recorded in California in 2010-11, according to Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, author of the bill.
In a blog post discussing the study, Perry wrote, “Researchers and child advocates have argued that contemporary disciplinary policies create winners and losers, often along racial and socioeconomic lines. Our research suggests that there are no winners.”