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 and concluded that little was known about the effects of the recent changes. But this year, the picture is becoming ever clearer: Discipline reform has caused a school-climate catastrophe and Philadelphia is the latest city to fall into this crisis, according to a new study conducted by Lacoe and Steinberg.
The school district of Philadelphia 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 to 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 also report another small improvement among previously suspended students after the policy shift: 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 after, 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.
In a sad irony, the effort to reduce the racial suspension gap actually increased it, and African-American kids spent an extra 15 days per 100 students 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' findings are bleak: The district has taken away a disciplinary tool that teachers believe in, and made meager efforts at training them in an approach that they don't find credible. Over 80 percent of Philadelphia teachers believe that suspensions work, but their administrators say they're just wrong.
Early in 2014, Arne Duncan, the education secretary under Barack Obama, 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 de-emphasizes punishment, and instead encourages schools to "remove antecedents and consequences that trigger and maintain problem behavior."
There is evidence 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 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 report feeling unsupported by administrators, and were no more likely than teachers at non-PBIS schools to report that their principals handle discipline effectively. Even administrators dedicated to PBIS have their doubts; one said, "I feel it's kind of like banging your head against the wall. So, all the things that I want to do are just not working."
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. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must rescind Duncan's guidance on discipline. And parents must press their teachers and principals about what's happened to their children's schools.