On exclusionary discipline in schools

A Chinese language teacher sits in an empty classroom as she teaches a class during an online course at Jingshan School, on a smoggy day under a "red alert" for air pollution, in Beijing
Editor's note:

Jon Valant testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education about discipline in schools, explaining why a centralized policy for exclusionary discipline can benefit students. Read his full testimony below.

Good morning, Chairman Grosso and members of the Committee on Education, and thank you for inviting me to speak today. My name is Jon Valant. I am an education policy researcher at the Brookings Institution, where I am a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy.

Although I will neither endorse nor oppose these proposals as currently written, I will share three reasons why a centralized policy for exclusionary discipline can benefit students. These perspectives come from research—others’ and my own—and from observations of urban districts grappling with similar issues.

Here are three potential benefits of a centralized discipline policy:

Reduce disparities in the rates of exclusionary discipline and limit opportunities for discriminatory punishment

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has documented large disparities in suspension and expulsion rates by students’ race and ethnicity, among many other background characteristics. This is consistent with patterns nationwide and in other urban areas.

Much discussion has focused on whether—and to what extent—these differences reflect discriminatory practices by school leaders. These are difficult questions for researchers to answer. However, there is emerging evidence from studies outside of the District of at least some degree of racial discrimination in school discipline.

  • In a recent study of Louisiana public schools that I coauthored with colleagues, we compared the length of suspensions given to African-American and white students who got into fights with one another. Even controlling for these students’ discipline histories, we found that African-American students received longer suspensions than the white students with whom they fought. The differences were small in magnitude but consistent across our analyses and statistically significant.
  • A growing body of research shows evidence of implicit bias even among those who might not consciously discriminate. One relevant example comes from a Yale study of early childhood teachers. Researchers asked teachers to observe four children—a black boy, black girl, white boy, and white girl—for signs of challenging behavior in the classroom. Although the videos contained no such signs, the researchers, who tracked teachers’ eye movements, found that teachers tended to watch African-American children, and especially African-American boys.

I do not mean to suggest that D.C. school leaders would knowingly discriminate against certain students, nor even that they are unknowingly doing so. Rather, these are patterns emerging from research elsewhere that should be considered in a responsible policymaking process.

Limiting the behaviors that yield exclusionary discipline can reduce disparities and the opportunities for discrimination. In our Louisiana study, we found that most suspensions arise from nonviolent infractions. Refraining from suspending students for these infractions would not eliminate racial disparities, but it would sharply reduce them.

Prevent schools from using suspension or expulsion to push out certain students

Nearly half of D.C. public school students attend a charter school, and many others attend a non-charter school that their families request. A setting with this much choice and school-level autonomy creates opportunities. It also creates challenges. One such challenge is that, under current accountability rules, schools might have incentives to remove certain students, whether by expelling them or persuading them to leave.

Leaders in New Orleans confronted this issue a few years ago. New Orleans has perhaps the most choice-oriented, autonomous school system in the country. Concerns about how some schools were expelling students led state, district, school, and community leaders to develop a unified expulsion policy for the 2012-13 school year. The policy defined a set of expellable offenses, along with creating an expulsion hearing process through a centralized office. The resulting policy is widely regarded as a step forward. The unified policy has made the expulsion process more transparent and uniform, given parents a greater sense of due process, kept schools from using expulsions to push out students, and improved system-wide data collection. It also has coincided with a drop in the citywide expulsion rate, which has fallen below the state’s expulsion rate.

Notably, New Orleans has not centralized its suspension policies, in part because of resistance from school leaders who are concerned about losing school-level autonomy.

Encourage schools to address the causes of misbehavior

OSSE data show that 38% of students suspended in 2016-17 were suspended more than once during that same school year. Without addressing the causes of a student’s misbehavior, a school is likely to see subsequent misbehavior from the same student.

There is little reason to believe that suspension and expulsion, in themselves, provide ample learning or incentive to prevent students from misbehaving when they return to school. These approaches are unlikely to address the causes of misbehavior.

Of course, just limiting school leaders’ ability to suspend and expel students is also unlikely to address these causes. If, however, those restrictions come with guidance and resources to handle misbehavior constructively—through a process that engages and supports school staff—then policymakers can help schools turn misbehaviors into opportunities for students to grow and schools to become safer. U.S. schools, after all, were never meant to focus exclusively on developing students’ academic skills. We should embrace the opportunities we have to help our students grow as people as well as scholars.

Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to testify. I would be happy to respond to any of your questions or comments.