School Discipline Reform: Doing More Harm Than Good, Studies & Teachers Say

A rise in disruptive and violent behavior in classrooms across the country has created chaotic learning environments. But attempts to remedy the in-class disruptions and altercations are making matters worse, according to an analysis by Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute.

From New York to Philadelphia to California, school discipline reforms focused on curtailing school suspensions and implementing “restorative justice” practices are putting students’ academic achievement and safety at risk.

New York City Schools have seen a

troubling rise in bullying, to a dramatic increase in teacher assaults, to a rise in violence and other indicators on state data, to the first killing in decades in a city school — to a local state legislator warning that students are fleeing public schools because of chaos in the classroom caused by a lack of discipline.

Philadelphia banned suspensions for nonviolent “conduct” offenses, such as profanity or failure to obey classroom rules, and academics suffered.

Achievement decreased by 3 percentage points in math and nearly 7 percentage points in reading after three years. And, in a perverse irony, African-American students ended up spending more time out of school on suspension because the number of suspensions for more serious offenses rose.

When Pittsburgh implemented restorative justice practices, students did not feel it improved school safety.

They said their teachers’ classroom management abilities deteriorated and that students became less supportive of one another. Perhaps most alarmingly, academic achievement for African-American students decreased.

Math achievement dropped in California school districts that banned suspensions for defiance.

A not-yet-peer-reviewed doctoral dissertation examined several California school districts that banned suspensions for nonviolent “willful defiance”: Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Pasadena. It found no effects on reading but a harm to math achievement large enough to take a student from the 50th percentile to the 39th after three years.

And, we are seeing similar trends here in Minnesota. The Center has been writing about chaotic classrooms in the state due to race-based discipline policies and lack of meaningful consequences for misconduct. Teachers have shared with us they feel pressure under these policies and fear for their own safety and the safety of their students. They also do not believe the discipline reforms work. Educators across the country share these sentiments.

In Denver, only 23 percent of teachers say the new approach to discipline improves behavior. In Charleston, South Carolina, just 14 percent of teachers believe it is an improvement over previous discipline policies, and in Madison, Wisconsin, only 13 percent of teachers think that it has a positive effect on behavior. In Oklahoma City, 11 percent of teachers said a greater implementation of “positive behavior interventions and supports” would help them be effective, compared with two-thirds who said greater implementation of traditional discipline would help.

Teaching professionals are saying these policies are not working the classroom. But this has not stopped the national teachers’ unions (NEA and AFT) from supporting the adoption of these policies. School leaders need to re-evaluate these policies and consider whose interests they are putting first by adopting such reforms. Our teachers and students deserve better.