Lessons From Cooking the Books on Suspension Rates

Lessons From Cooking the Books on Suspension Rates
Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News via AP
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The Washington, D.C. public school system has been touting a forty percent drop in suspensions over just two years, from 2013-14 to 2015-16, as evidence of successful discipline reform. Such an enormous drop is welcome news, because it means either that schools are becoming more orderly, or that administrators are finding other ways to deal with student misbehavior. Even if they are an important tool for maintaining order, the prevailing logic holds that suspensions don’t directly remediate root problem behaviors, they just take problem students out of schools. Since suspensions are associated with long-term negative outcomes for students receiving them, many advocate “restorative justice” or suspension alternatives that keep students in schools. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has been pushing such approaches and these dropping suspension rates appear to be evidence they are working.

Forty percent in just two years is a dramatic drop, so dramatic that it goes beyond encouraging advocates of suspension reduction, it also bolsters their perspective.  If DCPS can reduce suspensions so easily, advocates’ proposition that they were overused is probably correct.

Unfortunately, the veracity of that drop is now under suspicion. Last week, Alejandra Matos and Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported that some DCPS high schools have been reporting only a small fraction of suspensions. They reported that some DCPS schools kept two sets of books: one official record of suspensions and a second set of off-the-record lists sent to teachers in daily emails. In these schools, teachers were instructed to not admit into classes students on these lists who, though effectively suspended, were officially recorded as unexcused absences . 

The volume of unreported suspensions was huge. In one month, only seven percent of actual suspensions at Dunbar High School were reported in the official tally. In another seven high schools, only fifteen percent of suspensions in January of 2016 were officially reported. Those differentials suggest that DCPS’s suspension reductions have been grossly overstated.

There is no telling how widespread these discrepancies are. The Post limited their request to two months of data, and only from high schools, in order to keep the burden manageable, but they received an incomplete accounting. DCPS first panned the findings of the off-books suspensions as unrepresentative, but it’s hard to assume that the off-the-books suspensions don’t indicate a pattern. The emails that revealed the unofficial suspensions were standard practice, of which teachers had been complaining about for at least seven years, and the two months of (partial) records the Post received are unlikely to be outliers. Whether these patterns exist in high schools across the district, or extend to middle and elementary schools, is up in the air. After initially downplaying the findings, DCPS has decided to conduct a full review. Of course, the problem with keeping two sets of books is that they are hard to reconcile down the line.

The initial instinct to wag a finger at DCPS is reasonable, but it’s worth considering what led up to this double accounting. The impetus to reduce suspensions in DCPS is part of a larger push by some school officials and advocates, one that was backed by the Obama White House and Department of Education. This well-intentioned effort has a laudable theory of action: replacing suspensions with more supportive, inclusionary discipline practices. But without a measurement system to match, it produces a classic principal-agent problem.

The principal pushing new discipline systems cannot measure whether its agents—school officials—are actually implementing better discipline systems, but since suspensions are already tracked, they fall into the assumption that fewer suspensions mean their primary desire, new discipline systems, are being achieved. But the primary push felt by the agents (school officials) is to hit their numbers, whether or not they achieve the ultimate goals. This is especially the case when school officials don’t have the resources or ability to implement new disciplinary systems. When measures create incentives that don’t match the underlying theory of change, we should not be surprised if the changes are not the ones hoped for.

Should the administrators bear all the blame? Not so fast. If you were in their shoes, a well-intentioned school leader, what would push you to keep two sets of books? Why not just reduce actual suspensions? Because you need them to maintain order. The often-desired alternative to suspensions, restorative justice programs, are resource intensive, unproven, and a challenge to establish as a functional discipline system. Suspension has long been a key tool for maintaining discipline, and until that tool is replaced with another one that works, school leaders who want to meet central office expectations face a tough choice: reduce suspensions at the cost of an orderly school or cook the books. This logic does not mean a functional restorative justice program cannot reduce suspensions or replace them entirely, only that in these schools, it has not yet. Faced with the choice between cooking the books or removing a needed disciplinary tool, these administrators chose the former as the least worse course of action. 

Changing school discipline is hard work, and while the jury is still out on whether restorative justice is a viable replacement for suspensions, it has potential and is worth pursuing in earnest. But it is not worth pursuing if it’s just a band-aid on the fundamental challenges of maintaining orderly and functional schools. Genuine discipline changes will require a retooling of systems and fundamental changes in teacher and staff behavior, changes which will take time to bear fruit. If restorative justice is the model to make those changes, school systems must find the substantial additional resources that model requires. In addition, to know that the changes we want to see are real, we will need to use new measures—such as school climate surveys— that actually reflect the change we want to see. If we ultimately ask that schools reduce suspension statistics, that may be exactly, and only, what we get.

In other news, the U.S. high school graduation rate increased almost four percentage points between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years, and in Washington, D.C. the rate jumped sixteen points…

Nat Malkus is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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