The negative effects of dropping out of high school are firmly established: higher unemployment, lower wages, and greater likelihood of incarceration, to name a few. Consequently, discussions on high school dropout rates frequently focus on how we can re-engage at-risk students and encourage them to stay in school. But simultaneously, many schools employ practices that actively push out their students, namely suspension and expulsion.
Disciplinary push-out is a larger contributor to high school dropout rates than most realize. A new report from the Every Student Every Day Coalition shows that during school year 2011-12, DC schools imposed over 18,720 suspensions, and over 13% of students were suspended at least once. Perhaps more shockingly, these suspensions are not limited to older students; the highest-suspending elementary schools suspended approximately 25% of their students. From very early ages, students are labeled as “behavior problems” and put on the track to high school dropout.
The effect of each one of these suspensions is significant. As a result of being excluded from school, many suspended students remain unsupervised during the day. Instead of keeping up with their schoolwork, suspended students end up watching TV or playing video games at home. Instead of building relationships with teachers and school-engaged peers, they become more likely to build relationships with dropouts and other suspended students. They return to class further behind, less invested in school, and less ready to learn. Quantitative research demonstrates the effects of this missed classroom time. The largest study on the effects of school exclusion showed that suspended students are far more likely to be held back or fail to graduate than their peers. At the school level, higher rates of suspension have been found related to lower graduation rates.
These trends seem to hold in the data available for DC. As the figure below shows, schools with higher suspension rates tend to have lower graduation rates. Of course, some of this relationship likely reflects other factors, like students’ poverty and the school’s instructional quality; a more in-depth analysis could attempt to control for these confounding variables. However, previous research has found negative student-level effects of suspension even when controlling for dozens of these possible alternative explanations. Based on the strength of those findings, this first look at the DC data also likely indicates genuine negative effects of suspension on students’ likelihood of graduation.
On reflection, it seems like common sense that there is a relationship between being excluded from the classroom and dropping out of school. Getting suspended inherently sends a message from school to student: “We don’t want you here.” Unfortunately, many students receive this message loud and clear, and eventually choose to drop out.
It is remarkably self-defeating to maintain practices that actively push kids out of school, while at the same time seeking methods to keep them from dropping out. Thankfully, there are alternatives to exclusionary school discipline, alternatives that can support rather than undermine our goal of having every student in school through graduation. The leading evidence-based practice is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which focuses on introducing, modeling, and reinforcing good behavior rather than merely punishing bad behavior. Restorative justice is another promising practice, one intended to engage all key stakeholders, hold the offender accountable, repair the harm done to the victim, and facilitate the offender’s reintegration into the community.
Exclusionary school discipline is an important contributor to high dropout rates. If the District wants to maximize its graduation rates, decreasing suspensions and replacing them with alternatives keeping students engaged in school would be a good place to start.
Alex Peerman is the Policy & Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth. Alex is one of the authors of "District Discipline: The Overuse of Suspension and Expulsions in the District of Columbia," (PDF) a recent report published by the Every Student Every Day Coalition.