Under an Obama-era directive and the threat of federal civil rights investigation, thousands of American schools changed their discipline policies in an attempt to reduce out-of-school suspensions. Last year, education-policy researchers Matthew Steinberg and Joanna Lacoe reviewed the arguments for and against discipline reform in Education Next, concluding that little was known about the effects of the recent changes. But this year, the picture is becoming clearer: discipline reform has caused a school-climate catastrophe. 

Philadelphia is the latest city to fall into crisis, according to a new study conducted by Lacoe and Steinberg. The Philly school district serves 134,000 students, about 70 percent of whom are black or Latino. In the 2012–13 school year, Philadelphia banned suspensions for non-violent classroom misbehavior. Steinberg and Lacoe estimate that, compared with other districts, discipline reform reduced academic achievement by 3 percent in math and nearly 7 percent in reading by 2016. The authors do report that, among students with previous suspensions, achievement increased by 0.2 percent. But this only demonstrates that well-behaved students bore the brunt of the academic damage.

Lacoe and Steinberg report another small improvement among previously suspended students: their attendance rose by 1.43 days a year. But again, this development was more than offset by the negative trend in the broader student body. Truancy in Philadelphia schools had been declining steadily before the reform, but then rose at an astonishing rate afterward, from about 25 percent to over 40 percent.

Perhaps students were staying at home because they were scared to be at school. Suspensions for non-violent classroom misbehavior dropped after the ban, but suspensions for “serious incidents” rose substantially. The effort to reduce the racial suspension gap actually increased it; African-American kids spent an extra .15 days out of school.

What in the world was going on inside these schools? Fortunately, Steinberg and Lacoe’s quantitative studies are complemented by qualitative research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. The researchers’ conclusions are bleak: the district has taken away a disciplinary tool that teachers believe in, and made meager efforts at training teachers in an approach that they don’t find credible. Despite five years of hearing from their overseers that suspensions don’t work, more than 80 percent of teachers believe that suspensions are essential to send a message to parents about the seriousness of their child’s misbehavior, ensure a safe school environment, and encourage other students to follow the rules. About two-thirds of teachers believe that suspensions deter further student misbehavior.

Early in 2014, Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, accused teachers who suspended unruly kids of “racial discrimination” and threatened their superintendents with federal investigation if their districts didn’t reduce suspensions. Duncan declared that schools needed to shift to “evidence-based” discipline, such as the Department of Education–backed “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” (PBIS.) PBIS is a multi-tier, whole-school approach to instilling socially appropriate behavioral norms. Regarding discipline, “the emphasis is on the use of the most effective and most positive approach to addressing even the most severe problem behaviors. Most students will succeed when a positive school culture is promoted, informative corrective feedback is provided, academic success is maximized, and use of prosocial skills is acknowledged.” PBIS deemphasizes punishment, instead encouraging schools to “remove antecedents and consequences that trigger and maintain problem behavior.”

Some evidence suggests that PBIS can work, if schools have extra funding, training, and deep teacher buy-in. But those conditions don’t hold in major urban school districts. In Philadelphia, three years after banning suspensions for bad behavior, only 30 schools had received extra funding from the district to implement PBIS. According to the consortium’s study, many teachers harbor doubts about policies that they see as too soft; teachers at one school set up a “shadow” disciplinary system to circumvent the principal and do what they think works. Teachers reported feeling unsupported by administrators and were no more likely than teachers at non-PBIS schools to report that their principals handled discipline effectively. Even administrators dedicated to PBIS have their doubts. “I feel it’s kind of like banging your head against the wall,” one said. “So, all the things that I want to do are just not working.”

Remarkably, teachers at schools using suspension-averse policies proved no less likely to suspend kids than teachers at schools practicing traditional discipline—the ostensible point of the whole reform in the first place. Teachers in the reformist schools were, however, less likely to hold student-teacher conferences. That’s a disheartening finding, because the professed intention of the new policies is to encourage teachers to engage students before reporting misbehavior directly to the principal. Teachers report that principals have turned a blind eye to misbehavior and left it up to teachers to handle discipline. But principals are mirroring central office administrators, who have ordered schools to stop suspending students, while offering little in the way of workable alternatives.

Philadelphia’s story is the story of discipline reform nationwide. Philadelphia did this to itself, before Arne Duncan used the threat of a federal civil-rights investigation to make other districts follow suit. Last year, we knew next to nothing about the consequences of discipline reform. But the more we learn, the more reason we have to fear that Duncan’s deeply misguided federal guidance has put at-risk children at far greater risk. Current education secretary Betsy DeVos should rescind Duncan’s guidance on discipline, and parents should press their teachers and principals about what’s happening in their children’s schools.

Photo by Jon Helgason/iStock


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