Credit: Chris Pecoraro / iStock

California in recent years has arguably become the best state in the nation at holding school districts accountable for their suspension rates — but a number of districts are still lagging considerably when it comes to addressing suspension disparities among specific groups of students and supporting alternatives to traditional discipline, according to a new statewide report.

Thanks to the debut last year of the school accountability system known as the California School Dashboard, the state is one of just three nationwide to include suspension rates as a top indicator of overall school performance, and it sets the most stringent goals, asserts the report released Thursday by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide crime prevention and youth advocacy organization.

While districts have been required to address suspension rates since 2013 when the state Legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) — Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping school reform law — the dashboard has taken the responsibility to another level, said Brian Lee, the California director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and author of the report, which analyzed the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) from the state’s fifty largest districts.

“Now that (suspension rates) have been elevated to one of the top indicators on the dashboard, districts have a sense of what they should strive for,” Lee said. “Before you had to say you were doing something but there was no standard for it, or real accountability.”

The dashboard uses a color-coded rating system to track school performance based on suspension rates and three other statewide indicators: math and English standardized test scores, English language learner progress and graduation rates. College and career readiness and chronic absenteeism will be added soon, state officials say.

Of the 50 districts Lee studied, 44 set specific targets for lowering overall suspension rates. However, only 26 districts set specific goals for subgroups of students, including students of color and those with disabilities. This is not acceptable, say Lee and others, because it’s been well established that disabled students and students of color, most notably African-American boys, are suspended at significantly higher rates than their white classmates.

“It is disappointing that only half (of all districts) are coming up with specific subgroup goals,” Lee said. “It raises a question of whether districts are effectively addressing the issue.”

Regarding school climate surveys, which advocates and educators acknowledge are crucial in determining whether discipline reform measures are working, the report found that while 80 percent of districts are doing surveys annually, many are not setting sufficient goals for improving school climates.

Just half of the districts studied have set goals for improving “safety and connectedness” in schools, the analysis found. And even fewer set goals for improving climates not just for students, but also for teachers and parents, which the LCFF statute requires.

Lee said it was heartening to learn that a number of districts attribute drops in suspension rates to their use of alternatives to traditional discipline, including Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), which focuses on modeling positive behaviors, and restorative justice, which emphasizes mediation and face-to-face conflict resolution over punitive discipline.

However, his analysis of the LCAPs showed that districts in general are not devoting adequate staff and training resources to PBIS and restorative justice and that many are not transparent in their budgeting for these new approaches.

Finally, Lee said districts need to do a better job of including current data in their LCAPs. Too often, he said, the public is getting old suspension data in the reports when fresh data is available.

“The LCAPs are there to provide useful information to parents and community members,” Lee said. “It’s a lot less useful when you don’t have the current data.”

Click here for the full report.

Correction: This story was corrected to state college and career readiness will be added to the California School Dashboard at a future time. 

This story was updated on March 22, 2018 to reflect a correction.

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  1. Dkel 4 months ago4 months ago

    Suspensions should be based on kids exhibiting behaviors which is destroying the learning environment for other students. Race, gender, extra should never be a factor. There is no disparity issue when it comes to discipline in the academic environment. Schools should also bring back detention days for the dusruptive kid and their parent – with a fine for inconveniencing the school personnel.

    Remember when discipline mattered, anyone?

  2. Don 5 months ago5 months ago

    Apparently it is necessary to explain why there is such a thing as suspension in the first place. In all cases, students who are removed from school are, one way or another, upsetting the educational environment whether it is something like fighting or disruptive classroom behavior. It isn't only about the perpetrator of the behavior and the rate of suspensions. One disruptive student has an outsized negative effect on the learning of all the other … Read More

    Apparently it is necessary to explain why there is such a thing as suspension in the first place. In all cases, students who are removed from school are, one way or another, upsetting the educational environment whether it is something like fighting or disruptive classroom behavior. It isn’t only about the perpetrator of the behavior and the rate of suspensions. One disruptive student has an outsized negative effect on the learning of all the other students. Disruptive students also have an disproportionate effects on the administrative resources at the school.

    As a teacher I have seen what the effect of the suspension ban has wrought. And it isn’t pretty. Students know that they can do just about anything with impunity. Yes, more students are in school, but what is the result of that policy? Achievement for the at-risk groups has dropped in this district and statewide. Teachers are demoralized and leaving the profession. Hard=to-staff schools are even harder to staff.

    I can’t believe any serious person who cares about the central mission of education thinks that schools without appropriate disciplinary procedures, including suspension, is good idea. What I have seen is disturbing. In fact, it shocks the conscience. Every school now has a permanent group of students who roams the halls and fail every class.

    How can a serious discussion of this issue take place when there’s no focus on the effects of such misguided policies?

  3. James P. Scanlan 5 months ago5 months ago

    Like other states and local authorities, California has for some years been proceeding under the belief that generally reducing suspension rates will tend to reduce (a) percentage racial and other demographic differences in suspension rates and (b) the proportion more susceptible groups make up of suspended students. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. Generally reducing suspensions tends to increase both (a) and (b). This has been demonstrated in California and … Read More

    Like other states and local authorities, California has for some years been proceeding under the belief that generally reducing suspension rates will tend to reduce (a) percentage racial and other demographic differences in suspension rates and (b) the proportion more susceptible groups make up of suspended students. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. Generally reducing suspensions tends to increase both (a) and (b). This has been demonstrated in California and elsewhere across the country.

    Reference 1 is my recent testimony explaining this to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Reference 2 and 3 explain the matter a bit more succinctly. Reference 4 discusses the failure of the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Congress to understand the issue.

    Of course, setting goals for particular subgroups and taking race-conscious actions to meet those goals will counter the tendency for general reductions in suspensions to increase (a) and (b). That, however, is pretty clearly against the law.

    1. “Measuring Discipline Disparities,” Statement of James P. Scanlan Prepared for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Briefing “The School to Prison Pipeline: The Intersection of Students of Color with Disabilities” (Dec. 8, 2017) http://jpscanlan.com/images/Measuring_Discipline_Disparities_.pdf
    2. “The Paradox of Lowering Standards,” Baltimore Sun (Aug. 5, 2013)
    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-08-05/news/bs-ed-discipline-statistics-20130805_1_pass-rates-racial-differences-suspension-rates
    3. “Misunderstanding of Statistics Leads to Misguided Law Enforcement Policies,” Amstat News (Dec. 2012)
    http://magazine.amstat.org/blog/2012/12/01/misguided-law-enforcement/
    4. “Innumeracy at the Department of Education and the Congressional Committees Overseeing It,” Federalist Society Blog (Aug. 24, 2017)
    https://fedsoc.org/commentary/blog-posts/innumeracy-at-the-department-of-education-and-the-congressional-committees-overseeing-it

  4. A. Sutherland 5 months ago5 months ago

    Drops in suspension? What about schools sending our children with disabilities home early for things like "disruption". They are masking suspensions this way. When they do this, it is not reported as a suspension because they have the parent sign out the child. We as parents need to stop letting them get away with this. What about children missing school because they are being bullied. The child who is sent home or suspended learns nothing … Read More

    Drops in suspension? What about schools sending our children with disabilities home early for things like “disruption”. They are masking suspensions this way. When they do this, it is not reported as a suspension because they have the parent sign out the child. We as parents need to stop letting them get away with this. What about children missing school because they are being bullied. The child who is sent home or suspended learns nothing from the experience except to feel they are not wanted at schools. I would love to believe and see evidence that other measures such as PBIS, Restorative Justice, Bullying Prevention, Social and Emotional Learning are really reaching our classrooms and students. My district does not devote enough resources and mandate training in this area. I am all for these methods but have not observed this or heard from other parents that this is truly happening.

  5. Toni Herr 5 months ago5 months ago

    We are fooling ourselves in California if we think that rates of suspension reflect best practice or continuous improvement. What it means in truth is that districts are threatening principals’ jobs if they suspend students with the effect that principals are not suspending students who actually deserve it. The victims are the students themselves who aren’t changing their behaviors and their peers who live with disruptions, fights, and ongoing fear on campus.