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When it comes to school discipline, evidence must inform policy, not the other way around

by Jake Hofstetter
Thursday Apr 4, 2019

When it comes to school discipline, evidence must inform policy, not the other way around

The Trump administration still hasn't figured out that evidence informs policy, and not the other way around. In a Congressional hearing last week, Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) hammered Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for using questionable research— attributing racial disparities in school discipline to "pre-existing behavioral problems"— to justify changing the federal government's approach to school discipline. Clark continued her criticism this week, arguing that DeVos should resign over using what Clark describes as "racist research" that dismisses racial disparities in discipline rates by blaming students' themselves and not biases from school administrators or teachers.

Regardless of the problematic evidence Secretary DeVos cherry-picked, the Trump administration's approach to school discipline was already deeply flawed. President Trump and Secretary DeVos' policies would allow schools to discipline students more freely without considering the racial discrimination that underpins the removal of kids from class. The administration's stance will almost certainly lead to greater harm to the most vulnerable students in America's schools.

School discipline may seem straightforward and uncontroversial to a lot of Americans: a student breaks the rules, their name gets called over the loudspeaker to report to the principal's office, and the student gets punished. Yet the type of punishment matters a lot. Taking students out of class through detention or suspension — also known as exclusion — harms their chances of academic success. Students who are suspended for long periods or expelled often cannot reenroll in other options for education and may become involved in the criminal justice system, a trend referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

School safety and limiting disruptions in classes are important, but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that disciplining students is neutral, despite the research cited by the Trump administration. Black and Latino students are disciplined at greater rates than their white peers even when controlling for poverty and discipline type. Implicit bias often means that young students of color are judged more harshly than white students. As a result, the burden of unfettered school discipline practices falls disproportionately on poor students of color.

The Obama administration recognized and acted upon these disparities and biases in school discipline. Their 2014 guidelines recommended school administrators use removals from class or school less frequently due to the harm caused to students' academic performance. Besides the lack of evidence showing removals improved behavior, these practices were (and still are) having a disproportionate impact on minority students and those with disabilities. The Obama guidelines encouraged the use of restorative discipline instead. These practices focus on students' social and emotional well-being in order to foster safe, nurturing schools. To enforce these guidelines, the Obama administration warned of investigations into schools with serious racial disparities in discipline.

Enter Betsy DeVos. Last year, her Commission on School Safety released a report rescinding the Obama administration's school discipline reforms. Despite the established evidence against harsh school discipline practices, the Commission cancelled the Obama guidelines, citing concerns for school safety and local control over education. As last week's Congressional hearing highlighted, part of the justification for this policy change was questionable research that argued "[d]ifferences in rates of suspension between racial groups thus appear to be a function of differences in problem behaviors that emerge early in life, that remain relatively stable over time, and that materialize in the classroom." If this theory were accurate (spoiler: it's not), then differences in discipline would be due to these preexisting problems, not implicit or explicit bias from teachers and principals, and there would be no need for the Obama guidelines.

Even though academic research widely supports the existence of bias in school discipline practices, and theories about "pre-existing behavioral problems" totally ignore how implicit bias informs discipline, the Trump administration is sticking with its decision to repeal the Obama guidelines. There's no way to tell how school districts across the country will respond. The Obama guidelines may have converted some districts to more effective and fair discipline approaches, but others may return to harmful practices that will lead to worse outcomes for minority, disabled, and LGBT students. The harm that may come to many students based on such flimsy evidence only further highlights the danger of recklessly politicizing education policy.

Congresswoman Clark deserves praise for her stance against repealing the Obama guidelines, but it will take more than just Congressional hearings to address harmful school discipline practices. Congress should pass the Obama administration's guidelines into law, and, on a state level, Massachusetts can continue to ensure that racial disparities and harmful school discipline practices do not sabotage the education of our young people. Together, with dedication and evidence-based policies, we can keep kids in class where they are safe, supported, and free to learn.

Jake Hofstetter is a Research and Policy Associate for the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.