In 2012, following the lead of other school districts across the country, the School District of Philadelphia wisely began rethinking its punitive, zero-tolerance approach to discipline. One component of this changing approach has been a scaling-back of the widespread use of out-of-school suspensions.
That shift has recently run into opposition from outside sources. In December, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published “The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia,” arguing that reduced suspensions were harming “the rule-abiding majority.”
This was followed by an op-ed in the Inquirer and an article in The 74, both written by conservative polemicist Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, who cherrypicks and manipulates data to make the sensational claim that this one policy change has caused a “school climate catastrophe” in Philadelphia. Eden, a booster of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' and an advocate of deregulation of charter schools, has lately been crusading for a reversal of the Obama administration policies on school discipline that redressed bias against students of color and students with disabilities.
DeVos has not yet overturned the Obama guidelines, but this month, Breitbart News also urged her to do so, attacking what they pejoratively refer to as the “Obama-era ‘Black Lives Matter’ school discipline policy.”
Unfortunately, the bias against black lives in school discipline is very real: in Philadelphia, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. And research demonstrates that the racial disparities in suspension rates are not caused by different rates of misbehavior among black students. Most suspensions are doled out to students for nonviolent and subjective offenses like “misbehavior” or insubordination – inviting racial bias. Alarmingly, students as young as pre-kindergarten are targeted for this discipline that excludes them from school.
Suspensions have been proven to be an ineffective deterrent to student misbehavior, and they result in significant lost instructional time. Suspended students are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and drop out of school. Even non-suspended students at schools that overly rely on suspensions have worse academic outcomes.
The Fordham report and Eden’s claim of a Philadelphia “catastrophe” both rely on two studies by researchers Matthew Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania and Johanna Lacoe of Mathematica Policy Research. They examined the impact of a 2012 change in the School District’s Code of Student Conduct, which discouraged suspensions for nonviolent offenses and gave principals more discretion than zero-tolerance policies had allowed.
Steinberg and Lacoe – unlike Eden – did not speak of a “school climate crisis.” In fact, they found that attendance and academic achievement improved for students who otherwise would have been suspended but for the reforms. Where schools eliminated suspensions for nonviolent offenses, Steinberg and Lacoe also found “no adverse academic or attendance consequences” for “well-behaved” peers at these schools.
However, few District schools achieved full compliance; nearly a quarter did not implement the policy changes at all. Even though the reforms were directed at eliminating exclusionary discipline practices that disproportionately harm students of color, the schools that failed to implement the reforms were ones that served mostly black students. Thus, although it is true that, by Steinberg and Lacoe's metrics, school climate did not improve in these schools, it was not because of policy reform – because no such reform actually occurred. Schools that fully reformed their practices saw not only benefits to students who were previously suspended under zero tolerance, but also no harm to their peers.
Furthermore, what these researchers and critics all failed to point out is what was happening to Philadelphia’s schools during the period studied: an unprecedented and catastrophic lack of resources. Devastating cuts in state funding, exacerbated by unchecked charter expansion, created a school resource crisis that ravaged District schools. The system was also reeling from a school-closing plan that threatened one-quarter of District schools and ultimately shuttered 30 of them. Philadelphia schools were hammered by this perfect storm just as the new discipline code kicked in. In 2014, facing a school year without counselors, nurses, arts programming, and sports at many schools, Superintendent William Hite lamented that his schools were becoming “empty shells.” Cuts continued through the 2015-16 school year, exacerbated by teacher vacancies and a dysfunctional substitute-teacher system. It is no surprise that school climate suffered and effective implementation of discipline policies faltered during this turbulent period.
Thanks to boosts in city and state support, Philadelphia has now begun to reinvest in its schools, bringing back counselors and nurses, adding social workers, and reaching new contract agreements with school employees. With more schools achieving some stability, now is the time to implement critically needed measures to improve school climate, including alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.
The District has already banned kindergarten suspensions and has announced plans to extend that ban through 2nd grade next fall for nonviolent offenses. It is imperative that the District follow through on this commitment, which still must be formalized through a resolution by the School Reform Commission.
Districts and states nationally have recognized that suspending our youngest learners is a harmful, discriminatory, and ineffective way to manage classrooms and prepare students for success. Just last month, Pittsburgh banned the use of suspensions for PreK-2nd grade students for nonviolent offenses. Cities such as Houston, Seattle, and Minneapolis and states such as New Jersey, Connecticut, California, and Texas have all said no to suspensions for young students.
It’s time for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania to follow suit. Let’s stop hurting kids by suspending them and back up these policies by reinvesting in positive supports for students.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center.