Panel Paper: Reforming School Discipline: The Impact of District-Level Policy Reform on Suspended Students and Their Peers

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Gold Coast (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Matthew P. Steinberg, University of Pennsylvania and Johanna Lacoe, Mathematica Policy Research
In the wake of increasing criticism of zero-tolerance type approaches to school discipline, which employ consequences such as out-of-school suspension (OSS) for even relatively minor student infractions, states and districts nationwide are revising their discipline polices. As of May 2015, 22 states and the District of Columbia had revised their discipline policies, requiring or encouraging schools to limit the use of exclusionary discipline practices, to implement discipline strategies that rely on behavioral interventions, and/or to provide support services to students with academic and/or mental health disabilities. By the 2015–16 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts nationwide had implemented policy reforms requiring non-punitive discipline strategies and/or limits to the use of suspensions.

Yet, the academic and behavioral impacts of these reforms are largely unknown. In this paper, we examine the effects of a district-level policy change in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). Beginning in the 2012-13 school year, SDP formally prohibited the use of OSS for two types of non-violent student misconduct – failure to follow classroom rules and the use of profane or obscene language/gestures (i.e., conduct infractions). This paper addresses the following question: What effect does limiting suspensions for non-violent, conduct infractions have on the educational and behavioral outcomes of offending students – those suspended for non-violent misconduct– and their school peers?

We employ panel data for grade 3-12 SDP students in the 2011-12 through 2013-14 school years. Leveraging the district’s policy change, we employ a difference-in-differences strategy to examine the direct and spillover effects of reducing suspensions for low-level misconduct. We find that, for students who would have otherwise been suspended for conduct infractions, the reform reduced OSS, with the reduction in OSS concentrated among those infractions targeted by the district’s policy reform. The policy reform increased school attendance for students who would have otherwise been suspended for conduct infractions, and modestly improved the likelihood that these students achieved academic proficiency in math. However, the policy reform did little to reduce racial disproportionality in OSS.

For non-offending peers, we find that the effect of the policy reform was a function of variation in school-level policy implementation. Namely, in schools that reduced their use of conduct OSS to zero in the post-policy period, the achievement and school attendance of non-offending peers did not suffer. In contrast, non-offending peer math achievement declined and school absences increased in schools that did not fully implement the district’s policy reform (i.e., schools that reduced conduct OSS from pre-reform levels, but not to zero). Notably, these partial complier schools served a much lower performing student population, which meant that the marginal student brought back into the classroom post-policy was lower-achieving than the marginal student in schools that fully complied with the district policy reform.

Taken together, evidence from this paper should inform policymakers on the impact that discipline policy reform may have on suspended students, as well as the potential spillover effects of the policy reform on non-offending peers.