Both California’s experience and the latest academic research validate the view that fewer suspensions and improved campus climates are critical drivers of academic achievement and school success.
During the past several years, California has reduced out-of-school suspensions by nearly 40 percent, while academic achievement (as measured by the Academic Performance Index) increased.
Individual schools that embraced school climate improvement as a core strategy have experienced more dramatic gains. For example, James A. Garfield High School in Los Angeles was part of a three-year effort to improve school climate. As suspensions declined from 683 per year to one, API scores increased by more than 100 points.
These results are not surprising. Extensive study has shown that extreme school discipline policies simply don’t work. For example, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Zero Tolerance Policies found no evidence that increased suspension rates improved school climate or academic achievement. To the contrary, the Task Force reported that “the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions.” Indeed, a recent review from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that “lower suspension rates correlate with higher achievement for every racial group in California.”
For these reasons and many more, the State Board of Education should include suspension rates as a key indicator of how well schools are serving all their students in the Local Control Funding Formula evaluation rubrics and accountability system.
In the future, the board should also consider additional key indicators related to school climate, including the disparities in suspension rates.
These gaps persist among all major racial and ethnic groups. For example, during the 2013-14 academic year:
- African-American students faced a suspension risk 19.1 percentage points higher than did white students; and
- American Indian students faced a suspension risk 11.1 percentage points higher than did white students.
These gaps have begun to decline in recent years, but their persistence remains a grave concern. Even a single suspension reduces the likelihood that a student will graduate high school, which in turn reduces lifetime earnings potential, increases risk for a wide variety of chronic health problems and reduces life expectancy. Given the severe and lifelong consequences of school suspension, closer monitoring of these disparities would be appropriate.
Going forward, the board should also include additional school climate measures in the evaluation rubrics and accountability system going beyond school discipline. For example, chronic absence, which is strongly correlated with lower graduation rates, merits special focus.
Additionally, results from school climate surveys should be considered as future key indicators. School climate, student engagement and parent involvement are key factors that create a productive learning environment with fewer classroom disruptions and closer relationships among educators, administrators, staff, parents and students.
Dr. Robert Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, a private health foundation headquartered in Los Angeles.
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