Research lacking on school discipline reforms

Research lacking on school discipline reforms
Thin evidence on causes of and alternatives to suspensions, expulsions

September 29, 2016—Since 2011, the Obama administration has launched several initiatives to reduce suspensions, including a “Dear Colleague” letter issued jointly by the Departments of Education and Justice warning against discriminatory discipline practices. As of May 2015, 22 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws to require or encourage limits on school suspensions or expulsions. In a new article for Education Next, Matthew Steinberg of the Penn Graduate School of Education and Johanna Lacoe of Mathematica Policy Research document the scope of discipline policy reform taking place across states and districts nationwide. They assess the evidence on critiques of exclusionary discipline and in support of alternative strategies, and discuss areas where additional research is necessary to understand the consequences of both for schools and students.

Critics of exclusionary discipline cite the disproportionate suspension rates of minority students and students with disabilities. While racial disparities in suspension begin as early as preschool and extend through high school, with black students comprising 16 percent of enrollment but 34 percent of one-time suspensions (see figure below), Steinberg and Lacoe find that research is inconclusive on the question of whether these disproportionate rates are the result of bias. Further, they note that researchers have not yet established a causal relationship between the use of exclusionary discipline and either school climate or students’ later lives—such as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Steinberg and Lacoe note an increase in the use of exclusionary discipline to address nonviolent offenses, such as school uniform violations or refusal to turn off a cellphone. Nationwide, insubordination has accounted for an increasing share of suspensions of five days or more, from 22 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2008. Overall, suspensions and expulsions in public schools have declined since 2006, dropping by 20 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Of the program- and policy-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, Steinberg and Lacoe report the most evidence for, and positive effects from, the Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) program, a strategy that aims to change a school culture by setting clear behavioral expectations, laying out a continuum of consequences for infractions, and reinforcing positive behavior. Multiple experimental studies of SWPBIS find increased perceptions of school safety and reduced suspensions. The district-level intervention My Teacher Training Program (MTP) has also been shown to reduce suspensions and equalize suspension rates among white and African American students.

Other exclusionary discipline alternatives such as targeted program interventions and school- and district-level policy interventions, including “no excuses” school behavior policies, have little evidence of effectiveness in reducing suspensions or improving school climate.

“Clearly, there is a great need for rigorous evaluation research, which should focus both on the impact of school discipline reforms and on their potential unintended consequences,” the authors note, emphasizing that reducing suspensions is a starting point in effective school discipline reform but that changing school culture can have “spillover” effects on teachers and peers which raise important questions for further study.

To receive an embargoed copy of “What Do We Know About School Discipline Reform? Assessing the alternatives to suspensions and expulsions” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article with research citations will be available Tuesday, October 4 on and will appear in the Winter 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on November 18, 2016.

About the Authors: Matthew P. Steinberg is assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Johanna Lacoe is a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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