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Study: New approaches to school discipline still fall short of goals

Kristen B. Morales

November 13, 2018

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Across the United States, schools are moving away from the traditional model of student discipline—namely, suspension—and moving toward more holistic programs that address the root causes of misbehavior and improve school climate.

But despite some gains made by these alternative approaches, low-income and minority students continue to be disproportionately disciplined when compared with their wealthier or white counterparts, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

Researchers led by Richard O. Welsh, an assistant professor at UGA, analyzed nearly 30 years of studies related to school discipline; their results are published in the October issue of the Review of Educational Research. They found these alternative approaches—typically school-wide programs using positive reinforcement or restorative practices—may be reducing the number of students who are disciplined. But they still fail to address the racial, gender and economic disparities they were aiming to reduce.

“School discipline is an educational equity issue of immense proportions,” said Welsh, the study’s lead author who teaches educational policy in the UGA College of Education.

Welsh and doctoral candidate Shafiqua Little identified more than 1,000 studies published on K-12 school discipline disparities and alternative approaches in the United States between 1990 and 2017. Of those, they reviewed 183 to understand more about the contributors to racial, gender and income disparities that exist in disciplinary outcomes, as well as the effectiveness of alternative approaches.

In general, students who receive suspensions are disproportionately black—for example, in Georgia in 2017, schools reported 61 percent of all black students as having a disciplinary incident, yet they make up less than 40 percent of the total K-12 population. By addressing behavioral issues in a less punitive and more comprehensive way, the expectation was that it would result in more equitable disciplary outcomes.

But the study found that wasn’t the case.

For example, schools that implement a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), one of the more widely used approaches, generally saw fewer students sent to the school office for discipline as well as decreases in rates of suspensions. But other research found students did not benefit from the program equally, and black students continued to be disproportionately sent to the office. Another alternative approach, restorative practices, was found to reduce suspensions overall—but disparities still existed for black students.

Beyond the role of race, gender and socioeconomic status, researchers found other factors, such as teacher-student racial matches and the perspectives school administrators have toward discipline, played a large role in explaining the disparities.

Implicit bias may also influence the way educators and administrators react to misbehavior, Welsh said. When teachers rely on harsher treatments for black or Latino students and students become aware of these stereotypes, or teachers’ expectations that they will misbehave, it creates a cycle that undermines the teacher-student relationship.

Moving away from a traditional model of suspending students is still important, Welsh added, because that practice will always lead to lost classroom time. For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, suspensions led to 11 million days of lost instruction.

But because some students are disciplined at higher rates—namely along racial, gender and economic lines—suspensions have a compounding effect on education as a whole. “We know there are disproportionate patterns of which students are losing the instruction,” said Welsh. “So, when we talk about exclusionary discipline, it has a broader effect on overall education.”

Welsh said we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of our knowledge about what discipline practices work—and why.

“We need to be creative and innovative in the programs, procedures and systems we implement to help our students,” said Welsh, who also serves as the district-wide professor-in-residence with the Clarke County School District to examine the district’s school discipline policies and practices. “And we need to look at how teachers are taught classroom management strategies and cultural competency."