Suspension: Does it help or hurt? And how much?

Penn State’s recent report, “Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States” has put the issue of student suspension back in the limelight. The report’s main finding was that:

“Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year- 55% of those suspensions occurred in 13 Southern states. Districts in the South also were responsible for 50% of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.”

Other details in the report go on to show the impact of implicit bias in school discipline. Cultural awareness is something that all US schools need to work on. Studies have shown that black students are more likely to be disciplined or suspended for a specific behavior than a white student, even when their infringement was the same. The disproportionate numbers of white teachers compared to minority students should make cultural awareness an even bigger priority since we need to understand the backgrounds of our students in order to teach them effectively.

A Learning Lab article this week points to another study released last month that shows that as much as 20% of the achievement gap between black and white students could be due to getting suspended from school. This study included more than 15,000 students in Kentucky; researchers analyzed test scores and discipline records from 2008-2011. The study found that students who were suspended did significantly worse on year-end assessments than their peers of similar demographics who had not been suspended, or even compared to their own year-end test scores in years they had not been suspended.

This probably seems like an obvious conclusion that students who are out of school (suspended) are learning less and therefore getting lower scores than students who are consistently in school. Still, a 20 percent difference due to suspension is large and worth looking into.

An article from last week highlighted a disturbing statistic that Massachusetts public and charter schools suspended kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students 603 times in the 2014-2015 school year, which is half as many as the year before. These numbers are not broken down by race but, regardless, it is a large number of children ages 4-5 being suspended.

It is certainly worth questioning if suspensions are doing any good teaching appropriate behavior and changing the way a child would behave in the same situation again. As a teacher, I understand how much one misbehaving student can derail a class. One student can be the difference between a successful lesson and crashing and burning. It’s almost impossible to teach when a student is out of their seat, talking, calling out, or otherwise distracting the other students. Is it fair to leave that student in the class when it is taking away from the learning of everyone else? Is it fair to keep that student out of the building and take away their opportunity to learn (learn both content from class and appropriate behaviors)? I don’t think there is an easy answer. There are persuasive arguments on both sides.

Here is a common scenario: A student is disrupting class (use your imagination, there are a million methods for this); what does the teacher do? There might be a dean of students or a student engagement counselor that you can send the student to. These are the ones who typically dole out punishment, and hopefully, talk to the student about their behavior, why it was wrong, and what they should have done it differently. The student could have to sit in that office for a certain period of time, miss lunch or recess with the class, serve a detention, or get suspended for the infraction. But what does this mean in practice? An adult will have to STAY WITH that student in the office or during lunch or recess- taking away from breaks or other duties. An adult may even need to get paid extra for these duties. Same with detention; there would need to be a specific room available in the school for detention along with a staff member to run detention- which would have to be paid for. You, as the taxpayer, may think discipline is worth the money. It probably is, but it still takes a certain amount of time in the day of a faculty member and money in the budget. But then what happens if the student refuses to go to detention? Teachers can’t physically force them to go to the room, or to stay there, or to behave while there. A lot of times that refusal is what leads to suspension. What else can you do? This is a serious question- what else can the school do for discipline? I don’t have the answer.

My own recommendations for the suspension problem are:

  • Engage parents as much as possible. Not just when the students are in trouble, but throughout the school year. Having parents on the school’s side can make a huge difference
  • Teacher preparation programs NEED to teach classroom management and student-teaching needs to play a huge role in putting the theory into practice. Facing a room full of kids is NOT easy. Many teaching programs don’t have a specific class in classroom management; I suppose it is something that teachers are expected to learn on the job. It’s true, you perfect the craft with time and practice but it is still essential to have some ideas before you get in there.
  • Cultural Awareness needs to be taught in teacher preparation programs and practiced in schools. A lot of research show that there are cultural differences in how various races respond to directions and discipline. Teachers and school staff can all learn how to respect these differences while doing what will most effectively work with each student.
  • Have conversations with students. In my experience, teachers and deans of discipline have done this very well, but I’m sure there are cases of schools where this doesn’t happen. Having a conversation with a student can help adults understand why they acted a certain why and how to approach the situation differently the next time.

I want to make clear that these recommendations will not stop classroom disruptions and will not make the suspension problem go away- but they can help to lessen the issue. What to do when there are severe behavior issues that are consistent is definitely an issue that needs more conversation. Out-of-school suspensions can’t be the only way.

-Breanna Higgins

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