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School Discipline Linked to Later Consequences

Study finds clear and long-lasting negative effects for students attending high-suspension schools — particularly minority boys

September 16, 2019
School Discipline

Since the emergence of zero tolerance discipline policies in the 1990s, schools have increasingly been relying on suspensions as a behavioral management tactic. However, these policies can potentially stigmatize students and expose them to the criminal justice system. A field of developing research strongly suggests a correlation between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out, arrests, and incarceration.

A working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research reports some of the first causal evidence that strict schools do indeed contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. The study’s authors are Andrew Bacher-Hicks and David Deming of Harvard University and Stephen Billings of the University of Colorado–Boulder.

The Study

The study explores the relationship between suspensions, achievement, and incarceration in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district (CMS) in North Carolina, in which 23% of middle school students are suspended each school year and suspensions are concentrated heavily among minority populations.

CMS provided a rigorous way to test the causal effects of suspensions because, in 2002, schools were redistricted and roughly 50% of all students were assigned to new schools that fall. This new assignment meant researchers had access to an ideal sample: students from the same neighborhood, some of whom had attended schools with a high rate of suspension and now attended schools with a lower rate, others who had moved from a less-strict school to one with more suspensions, and students whose school had not changed.

Researchers used available school administrative records, data on arrests and incarcerations, and college attendance records to assess the impact of school environments on later life outcomes.

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Broad Takeaway:

Students assigned to high-suspension schools are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated later, and less likely to attend a four-year college. Male minority students are most likely to be affected.

The Findings

“One of the arguments in favor of suspensions is that if a student is removed from the classroom, they’re no longer causing disruptions, and so removing disruptive students could have positive benefits on those who remain in the classroom,” says Bacher-Hicks, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at Harvard. “But we found for all students, there are large negative impacts on later-life outcomes, related to attending a school with a high suspension rate. That suggests there are not overwhelmingly positive benefits of removing disruptive peers from the classroom.”

  • Even though half of all CMS students attended a new school for the 2002–2003 school year, original suspension rates stayed largely the same at each school, even though half of the student population had been redistricted. This finding suggests that suspensions are the result of policies, rather than student population.
  • Students assigned to a school with a one standard deviation higher suspension rate are 15–20% more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults and were also less likely to attend a four-year college.
  • Male minority students were most likely to be affected negatively by stricter school policy.
  • The study also demonstrated that school effects on suspensions was unrelated to other features like teacher turnover, school quality, and student composition.
  • But there was a clear correlation between school effects and school leadership, suggesting that variation in suspension policy happens at the school leadership level.

Suspensions did not have a statistically significant impact on positive student achievement overall. No long-term benefits were found in any represented subgroup. “We tested a range of variables, and only one short-run benefit popped out for any subgroup: There was some evidence that test scores increased for non-minority males. But even for that subgroup, we find negative long-run outcomes in terms of arrests and incarcerations,” Bacher-Hicks says.

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    "We found for all students, there are large negative impacts on later-life outcomes, related to attending a school with a high suspension rate. That suggests there are not overwhelmingly positive benefits of removing disruptive peers from the classroom.” – Andrew Bacher-Hicks

    How to Use this Knowledge: School Discipline

    • Education professionals should be cautious of relying heavily on exclusionary practices. A strict school climate negatively impacts long-run outcomes — educational attainment, arrests, and incarceration rates — for the overall student body.
    • Professionals wishing to address achievement gaps or criminal justice outcomes should consider reimagining school disciplinary measures as a lever for change. Male minority students are disproportionately affected by suspensions and strict policies, and this bias almost certainly contributes to existing gaps in educational attainment and criminal justice outcomes.
    • School leaders play a key role in setting disciplinary policy. Leaders should recognize that power and think about the impacts of discretionary choices before suspending a student.
    • Consider alternatives to suspensions. An Obama-era guidance issued in 2014 hoped to address the potential negative implications of school suspensions and disciplinary practices. It suggested alternative practices based in positive reinforcement and a restorative process for students re-entering the classroom following disciplinary action.
    • Gather data to support best practices. While this study finds that suspensions have a negative impact on later life outcomes, there isn’t much research to support disciplinary approaches that positively affect later outcomes. Researchers should look at schools and districts implementing alternative practices to develop future studies.

    Read the working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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