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The School-to-Prison Pipeline


The School-to-Prison Pipeline

January 10, 2018

Max Eden joins Seth Barron to discuss student discipline and suspension policies, and how discipline “reform” has led to chaos in many classrooms.

In January 2014, in an attempt to reduce out-of-school suspensions, an Obama administration directive forced thousands of American schools to change their discipline policies. Proponents of the new discipline rules say that teachers and school administrators have been racially discriminatory in meting out punishments, creating a massive disparity in suspension rates between white and black students. Their claims, however, ignore the significant discrepancies in student behavior.

“We tend to see one of two things happen as suspensions drop: Schools get less safe or school administrators cheat,” wrote Max Eden at National Review Online, meaning that the schools separate disruptive students in ways that don’t technically count as “suspensions.”

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Hello, I am City Journal editor Brian Anderson.  Thanks for joining us for the 10 Blocks Podcast, featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.

Seth Barron: Hi.  I am Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal.  You are listening to 10 Blocks.  I am joined by Max Eden.  Max is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and he has been studying how schools change the way they discipline students and what the effects of those changes have been.  Thanks for joining us, Max.

Max Eden: Yeah, thank you for having me, Seth.

Seth Barron: So, Max, we hear a lot about the school-to-prison pipeline.  Can you describe what that is and, I mean, is it the case that schools are really feeding youth into the penitentiary system?

Max Eden: Yeah.  So, the school-to-prison pipeline is a pretty clear-cut example of academics looking at a correlation and calling it a causation.

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: It is absolutely true that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out, and that students who drop out are more likely to be unemployed, be underemployed, or be incarcerated.  The question is: Do the suspensions cause those things, or are these students who have problems that you can’t quite get to from conventional statistics that manifest in bad behavior, in suspensions, and in bad later-life outcomes?  And, whereas I think the weight of the evidence is for the latter hypothesis under the Obama administration, the consensus the academics they listened to was that it is suspensions that are responsible for these long-term outcomes.

Seth Barron: I see.  So, you are saying there are some kids who have behavioral problems, who are going to cause trouble whether they are in or out of school, and their suspensions are not…

Max Eden: You know, the way that I put it when I testified in front of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on this is that it is as though you have two students who look statistically similar, so far as an academic can tell, one student punches a teacher, gets suspended and drops out the next year, the other student behaves, graduates, goes to college.  Do we believe that the suspension was responsible for that student dropping out?  Or was there…

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: …were there problems going on behind the scenes?

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: And to the extent that academics have been able to try to tease out the causal effects of suspensions, they found them to be quite modest to one study, even slightly positive.

Seth Barron: Alright, now school suspension is something that happens on the local level.  I mean, it is hard to get more local than schools, but you cited the Obama administration and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – how did they get involved?  What is the tie in here?

Max Eden: Yeah, so in 2014 the Obama administration released national statistics for the first time at this magnitude documenting the nationwide racial discipline gap.  African-American students are suspended at about 3.8 times the rate of white students, and this naturally caused a lot of alarm and consternation in the highest echelons of government and in the media.  And so, the Obama administration issued Dear Colleague guidance, somewhat similar in function and form to the Title IX guidance, telling schools that if you have racially neutral discipline policies that are administered in a fair and evenhanded way, without any bias, they could still be considered unlawful discrimination if they have a disparate effect.  So, in logical form, this would mean that if you have a rule that says you are not allowed to curse at a teacher and one group of students does that more often than another, that is something that you as a school are being told you should take a lookout for, because the federal government might come in and start an investigation.

Seth Barron: But if in fact the rules are being applied impartially and, you know, perhaps one group of students does commit more infractions, well, what is a dean of students or a vice principal to do?

Max Eden: There are a few responses.  You could pretend to not suspend the students.  That is what we have seen in Washington, D.C., where it was, and I have been tracking school climate surveys wherever we have them wherever these things happen, and Washington, D.C., was the one city where I didn’t spot harm to school climate according to students, despite a significant decrease in suspensions.  It came out earlier this year, Washington Post reporters sussed out that the principals were still suspending who knows how many kids, but they weren’t telling the central office about it.  They were circulating a list to teachers of these are the kids you are not allowed to let into the school building, and so that’s how those teachers – how those principals responded to it.  The other way to respond to it is to not discipline kids who the teachers think need to be disciplined, and then when that happens, negative consequences can flow.

Seth Barron: Well, I do want to hear about those negative consequences, but first let’s back up a bit.

Max Eden: Yeah.

Seth Barron: To what extent are – I mean, if black kids are being suspended at 3.8 times the rate of white kids, are they committing 3.8 times the number of infractions?  Is there a behavior gap?  Or, is it the case as, you know, some of the media have said, that things that black kids – but white kids may do the same thing and not get in trouble for it?  So, is there racism built in to the school disciplinary system?

Max Eden: One thing that education policy people have a hard time doing is accepting that things like racism could be a partial explanation for a phenomenon that they are witnessing.  I think that it is eminently plausible, and in some cases documented, that racial bias plays a role in the overall suspension disparities, but I think that the strongest reading of the evidence says that it is a rather minor role.  There was one study in North Carolina, these academics tried to look at teacher racial match and how that affected referral to the principal’s office, because every study that has had sufficient data to assess what really happens when the students are referred to the principal’s office has found that there is no discrimination or bias at the principal’s office level once you control for enough factors.  So, these researchers said I wonder how much of it is when the principals refer you – when the teachers refer you to the principal, because that is probably where you even more expect the bias to play in.  They looked at records of North Carolina, and in their first pass at the data they found that black teachers were more likely to suspend black students than white teachers were.  This wasn’t something that they particularly expected to find, and they hypothesized that perhaps principals were steering black students who had bad behavioral records to black teachers.  And, so, they tested that hypothesis and they found what they thought was reasonable evidence that the hypothesis holds, they reran the calculations trying to control for that hypothesis, and then they found, yes, that white teachers are more likely to refer African-American students to the office than black teachers are for those same students.  But, they estimate the difference between a black student having all African-American teachers and a black student having all white teachers to be a 2% difference in his or her likelihood of being referred to the principal’s office.  So, it exists, but it is not 100%, it is not 50%, it is probably not 10 or 15%.

Seth Barron: Okay, so it is fairly marginal.

Max Eden: Yeah.

Seth Barron: Well then so what has been the effect of these changes that you have talked about?  City Journal ran a piece last year about Minneapolis and the experience of teachers there, where they have really cut back on suspensions, and I know you have done some work on Philadelphia.  Can you talk about your research and what you found?

Max Eden: Yeah.  Well, I’ll talk about New York first for a second…

Seth Barron: Sure.

Max Eden: …because that’s where I have done the direct work.

Seth Barron: Great.

Max Eden: So, I published a paper last March looking at the New York City School Climate Survey data and trying to see how have schools changed, or how have students’ answers to questions like kids at my school get into fights all the time, kids at my school don’t respect each other, there are lots of drug activities, there are lots of gang activities.  We know when suspension reform happens suspensions will go down.  That is no longer a marker of how safe things are in that school, but if you look at how students answer the same questions, if that changes you might be worried.  And in about 55 or 60% of schools that served 90+% minority students, a higher percentage of students said that kids at my school get into frequent physical fights, a higher percentage of students said that kids at my school don’t respect each other, and in about 45% of those schools a higher percentage of teachers said that order is not maintained in our classrooms.  But New York was a rare case, because these school climate surveys are pretty few and far between.  The Philadelphia study wasn’t my work, I just reported on a couple of studies that recently came out…

Seth Barron: Okay.

Max Eden: …and this, the school climate data didn’t exist for Philadelphia.  They have since implemented it, but you can’t trace back those questions far enough.  But what they had was robust enough data to do as methodologically rigorous an evaluation as possible as to what are the effects of discipline reform, and they found that discipline reform had a substantial negative causal impact on reading scores, and math scores, and proficiency on behavior.  At the end of the day the racial suspension gap actually rose because even as African-American students were being suspended less often for the conduct offenses that were banned, the talking back to a teacher, the acting out, they were suspended more for more serious offenses.  Things like violence, things like really, really bad language.  And those – being suspended more for those offenses actually raised the overall discipline gap.  African-American students spent more time out of school, but they weren’t the only ones spending more time out of school.  This wasn’t a causal thing, but the trend line was profoundly suggestive.  Truancy in Philadelphia had been falling rather steadily for the four or five years before this reform and it hit about 25%, which is still quite huge, and the inflection point is the year of the reform and the next three years it rose to about 42%.

Seth Barron: Wow.  So, you are saying that many – perhaps some kids who are well-behaved or, you know, just regular kids, started skipping school because the environment was getting rougher?

Max Eden: You know, that’s the prime hypothesis that is hard to – one can’t see far enough under the hood to point that out in the data, but you put these, you put this constellation together and that is what it shows.

Seth Barron: And regarding the question of suspensions going up for serious offenses, it almost sounds like there is a kind of broken windows effect going on where if kids are, you know, allowed to talk back to teachers or, you know, do these minor things, then you are not – you are not nipping their bad behavior in the bud and you are allowing worse behavior.  You are cultivating worse behavior.

Max Eden: Yeah.

Seth Barron: Is that a fair characterization?

Max Eden: I mean, this is a theory that the advocates behind discipline reform would have anathema, right?  For them, broken windows theory is a byword for all sorts of implicitly racist doctrine and dogma and such.  But there is a strong – a yawning divide between the activists and the teachers.  One of the most interesting things to come out of a second Philadelphia study, a qualitative study by University of Pennsylvania researchers was they asked teachers – do you think that suspensions are useful?  And the teachers said yes.  Over 80% of teachers said that suspensions were useful to send a strong message about the seriousness of behavior, to send that message to the other students in the class, to send that message home to parents, and two-thirds of teachers believe that suspensions actually in themselves, aside from those signaling mechanisms, deter future bad behavior.  So, it seems as though the consensus of teachers in Philadelphia is that this broken windows theory of you can’t allow low-level offenses to go not acted upon, it makes a lot of intuitive sense to them even though it is something that is, according to the discipline reforms, that it is something that we know doesn’t work.

Seth Barron: Now, Secretary DeVos rescinded the Dear Colleague letter that had been sent out regarding Title IX investigations…

Max Eden: Yes, yes.

Seth Barron: …is there any move, are people asking her to rescind this Dear Colleague letter on school suspensions?

Max Eden: There has been more and more discussion on this in the past few months.  About maybe two or three months ago, the acting assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights met with a handful of teachers, actually some of whom were featured in the City Journal article, who were physically assaulted by students and found that the school districts, you know, believe the school district enabled that and turned a blind eye to it, and fundamentally felt they were at fault for it, and so after that meeting became public the debate on this has really started to sparkle out.  The Senate Democrats issued a very strongly worded letter to her maybe three weeks ago telling her that she needs to tell them by January 8th, and I think it might be January 8th, it might be beyond that, that she needs to assure them that she will absolutely not rescind this letter.  On the other hand, you have more people on the Right trying to pressure her to say hey, when is this going to happen, because the evidence really is continuing to mount as to the effects of these reforms.  The people who wrote the Philadelphia piece, Matthew Steinberg and Johanna Lacoe from the University of Pennsylvania and Mathematica Policy Research, they wrote an article a year ago on this stuff and they said we have no idea what the effects of these reforms are because they are so new and there are so few ways to really judge.  But, as I said in the City Journal piece, as the months, weeks, and sometimes days roll by, we are seeing more and more evidence, both anecdotally but also by the data of the harm that this has had, so I hope that she will act at some point in the near future.  I have been rather disappointed that it wasn’t one of those things that was done in the first hundred days.

Seth Barron: Oh, I see.  Thanks for joining us.  And if you enjoyed the podcast you can leave a review for us on iTunes.  Follow us on Twitter, @CityJournal, and you can follow our guest Max Eden, @MaxEden99.  Thanks again.

Brian Anderson: You can subscribe to this and other Manhattan Institute podcasts in the iTunes store.  The audio edition and transcript are available on our website,  This is City Journal editor Brian Anderson.  Thanks again for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast.

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