Pressing the Reset Button on Discipline Reform
In recent years, NASSP and other forward-thinking organizations have been active supporters of the discipline reform movement, with the goal of reducing the use of suspensions and other forms of “exclusionary discipline” that are associated with negative outcomes—including higher rates of criminal justice involvement. But, of course, actually reducing suspensions can be challenging.
As one of NASSP’s guiding principles on school discipline notes, “Any strategy to reduce suspensions and expulsions must be part of a comprehensive schoolwide effort to improve the quality of classroom instruction accompanied by efforts to create conditions where students are meaningfully engaged in the school community and come to school ready to learn.” Yet, despite the fact that teachers are critical to the success of such efforts, there have been surprisingly few attempts to solicit their input on the shape or shortcomings of disciplinary approaches.
Accordingly, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C., surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,200 teachers for grades 3–12 in partnership with the RAND Corporation. Because racial and socioeconomic equity is a principle motivation for discipline reform, the organization oversampled black teachers and teachers in high-poverty schools to ensure that their views were represented.
The Institute’s goal was to answer three questions. First, what do teachers think of alternatives to suspension, and under what circumstances—if any—do they think suspensions and other exclusionary practices are appropriate? Second, to what extent does the recent decline in suspensions reflect improved student behavior (as opposed to changes in how educators respond to misbehavior and/or changes in reporting practices)? Finally, what do teachers think we should be doing differently or better when it comes to school discipline?
- Teachers in high-poverty schools report higher rates of verbal disrespect, physical fighting, and assault—and most say a disorderly or unsafe environment makes learning difficult. Compared to teachers in low-poverty schools, teachers in high-poverty schools are more than twice as likely to say that verbal disrespect is a daily occurrence in their classrooms (33 percent versus 14 percent). They were more than six times as likely to say that physical fighting is a daily or weekly occurrence (32 percent in high-poverty schools said so, versus 5 percent in low-poverty schools). Those teachers in high-poverty schools were also more than three times as likely to report being personally assaulted by a student (13 percent versus 4 percent). The consensus among teachers across the board is clear: Teachers in high-poverty schools—both black and white—say that student behavior problems make learning difficult (60 percent of black teachers said so, and 57 percent of white teachers agreed), which suggests that perceptions of school climate are not driven by teacher race.
- Most teachers say discipline is inconsistent or inadequate and that the recent decline in suspensions is at least partly explained by higher tolerance for misbehavior or increased underreporting. Overall, 66 percent of teachers say the discipline policy in their schools is inconsistently enforced. Among those reporting a decline in suspensions at their school in recent years, 23 percent attribute the decline “mostly” or “completely” to “improved student behavior.” Meanwhile, 38 percent associate a decline in suspensions with “higher tolerance for misbehavior.” Nearly half of teachers (46 percent) attributed the decline in suspensions to “increased use of alternatives to OSS [out-of-school suspension],” which is potentially consistent with both improved behavior and higher tolerance for misbehavior. Finally, 18 percent of teachers who noted that they have seen a decline in suspensions say that decline can be attributed to “increased underreporting.”
- Although many teachers see value in newer disciplinary approaches—such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative justice—most also say that suspensions can be useful and appropriate in some circumstances. More than 4 out of 5 teachers deemed each of the three “alternative” discipline approaches—PBIS, restorative justice, and trauma-informed practices—at least “somewhat” effective. However, 88 percent of teachers also agreed that “establishing specific consequences for misbehavior” is at least “somewhat” effective. Although 62 percent of teachers agreed that “suspended students fall further behind academically,” 85 percent also agreed that out-of-school suspensions have their place, including “sending messages to parents about the seriousness of infractions,” “removing disruptive students so others can learn,” “ensuring a safe school environment,” and “encouraging other students to follow the rules.”
- Most teachers say the majority of students suffer because of a few chronically disruptive peers—some of whom should not be in a general education setting. When asked to reflect on the previous school year, 77 percent of teachers agreed that “most students suffered because of a few persistent troublemakers.” Similarly, 64 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said they had some “chronically disruptive” students who “should not have been in their classroom.” On a potentially related note, most teachers also agreed that disciplining students with IEPs presented additional challenges—especially in a general education context. For example, 70 percent of respondents agreed that students with IEPs were treated too leniently, “even when their behavior had nothing to do with their disability.”
- Despite their belief that disciplinary consequences are racially biased, many black teachers say suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of “exclusionary discipline” should be used more often. Compared to their white peers, black teachers are twice as likely to believe that suspensions “greatly increase” students’ odds of criminal justice involvement (16 percent versus 8 percent), and they are far more likely to believe there is racial bias in how school discipline policy is carried out (77 percent versus 24 percent). Yet, despite these concerns, less than 1 in 10 black teachers (7 percent) say out-of-school suspensions are used too much. And many black teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, say that out-of-school suspensions should be used more often (50 percent), as should longer-term options such as expulsions (36 percent) and Alternative Learning Centers (44 percent).
The Way Forward
Reducing suspensions is a worthy goal. But if we underestimate the challenges, it may prove to be yet another unfunded mandate that creates as many problems as it solves. Based on the survey results, we recommend three courses of action for district leaders and other stakeholders.
- Districts should revise their codes of conduct to give principals and teachers more discretion when it comes to suspensions. We agree with NASSP that district leaders should “engage principals, teachers, parents, and students in the development and scheduled periodic reviews of the code of conduct.” However, such consultation can be more effective and authentic when it occurs at the school level. In general, establishing and maintaining basic order so students can learn is an interpersonal challenge that doesn’t lend itself to technocratic solutions. And trying to devise universal rules that are appropriate to every situation can do serious damage insofar as it undermines principals’ and teachers’ authority, forces them to make fundamentally unreasonable trade-offs, and increases the incentive to engage in underreporting.
- Advocates for disruptive students should focus on improving the environments to which they are likely to be removed. Also in line with NASSP, we support “adequate funding for alternatives to out-of-school suspension, such as after-school tutoring and additional coaching from teachers, after-school detention, Saturday school, parent conferences, in-school suspension, and alternative programs.” In general, districts and schools should be as focused on connecting disruptive students with the services they need as they are on tracking the rates at which they are suspended.
For example, many teachers report that students spend in-school suspension doing busy work when they could be receiving more intensive tutoring or counseling. And there is a strong case for better meeting the needs of students who receive lengthier suspensions—or outright expulsions—by referring them to a well-resourced, district-run alternative learning center.
- Additional resources should be put toward hiring more teaching assistants and mental health professionals in high-poverty schools. Although the appeal of newer disciplinary approaches is understandable, their track record is spotty, in part because what appears to work in one place often fails to deliver the hoped-for benefits somewhere else—with different students, different staff, different leadership, and different resources and constraints. Accordingly, when and where additional resources are available, the priority should be ensuring that high-poverty schools and the associated alternative settings are well-staffed with individuals who have the skills, knowledge, and passion to help troubled and at-risk youth succeed.
As these recommendations suggest, our biggest concern is not with the intent of most discipline reforms, but with their “top-down” nature, which our results suggest has undermined student safety and learning.
Teachers Speak Out
Thanks to open-ended survey responses to the discipline issue, we can examine teachers’ feelings about this issue firsthand:
“Discipline has gone downhill. With the new laws, more students are staying in class and then disrupting the learning environment. Consequences are not handed out quickly enough, and students refuse to serve after-school detentions. They are not held accountable anymore. The lack of control/discipline in the schools has had me thinking about other career choices.”
“The school system’s discipline policies don’t support the classroom teacher. I have observed students with chronic behavior problems repeat poor behaviors with little consequence. It seems at times that administration’s hands are tied.”
“If multiple teachers are struggling with the same student disrupting class, that student shouldn’t be in a general [education] classroom. … We can’t do our job correctly if a student can’t meet the expectations of the school.”
The implicit assumption of “top-down” reform is that principals and teachers are incapable of checking their biases or sensibly balancing the competing interests of their students, such as deciding when a disruptive student should be removed. But in the long run, we will make more progress if we assume that educators are experienced professionals who are already doing their best by students—often, under extremely challenging circumstances. Instead of tying their hands and calling it reform, let’s ask principals and teachers what they really need.
David Griffith is a senior research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of NASSP.