01/21/2015 06:17 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2015

Fresh Thinking on Student Discipline

An interesting piece of new research should help teachers, principals, parents, and community and school board members think in fresh ways about student discipline.

Traditionally, many people have thought that schools are better places to learn when all the troublemakers are out of the building. This theory, which makes a certain amount of common sense, has been used to justify historically high suspension and expulsion rates (more than 3 million students were suspended in 2010).

Now along come Brea L. Perry of the University of Indiana and Edward W. Morris of the University of Kentucky to complicate our thinking.

In Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools, they describe how they looked at data from almost 17,000 students in 17 high schools in Kentucky and found that high rates of suspensions do not seem to allow non-suspended students to learn more. In fact, high rates of suspension, expulsion, and other forms of exclusion from school, such as sending kids to alternative programs, are closely correlated with lower academic growth in both reading and math for the other students. Perry and Morris controlled for the overall order -- or disorder -- of the schools, poverty of the student body, and all kinds of other factors. And still that correlation held.

In other words, rule-following students -- kids who have never been suspended -- learn less in schools with high rates of suspension and expulsion than in schools with low rates.

A lot of research has documented the effects of suspension on students who are suspended -- they have lower achievement, higher rates of dropping out, and are more likely to be unemployed and incarcerated. But this is the first study I know of that turns the question around and asks what the effect of suspension and expulsion is on the academic growth of students who are never excluded from school.

Why high suspension rates would have this effect is still a question. The study's authors have a number of theories. One is that as long as suspensions are kept to a small number, the likelihood of any single student knowing a suspended student might be low; once the rates go significantly above the norm, though, that likelihood becomes smaller. In those cases, even the most rule-following kid in school may know a suspended student from elementary school, from the neighborhood, from class, or from school activities. If there is doubt about the fairness of the suspension, this can lead to cynicism and an atmosphere of distrust of the adults in the building -- not the best learning environment.

That makes sense.

I would also posit that students in schools with high suspension and expulsion rates see that the adults in the building are not committed to their success and thus may feel "unloved," to quote Diane Scricca, the former principal of Elmont High School in New York. In other words, they are reacting to the harsh environment that resulted in the suspension of many of their classmates. Also not the best formula for learning.

One of the shortcomings of the Perry and Morris study is that it didn't account for why students were excluded from school. After all, not all suspensions and expulsions are alike.

But my suspicion is that, in general, when rates are low (which the authors found had no effect on the academic growth of students who were never suspended), it is because schools reserve it for the most serious offenses; when they are high, schools are more likely to be suspending kids for kid stuff -- talking back, cutting class, showing up late. Kids may need to face consequences for those kinds of behaviors, but excluding them from school has dire consequences for them. And, it turns out, doesn't seem to help create a culture of learning for the students who remain.

This is just one study of just one set of students, and for that reason its results need to be treated tentatively. But it is an interesting spur to new thinking.

School districts that want to improve their academic achievement might choose to do their own studies on how many kids they are excluding from school -- and whether high rates of exclusion helps create a good school climate where kids trust the adults in the building to treat them fairly.

I'd lay odds that it doesn't.

(Thanks to Jane Meredith Adams of Ed Source for alerting me to this study.)