Driven in part by pressure from the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” guidance on school discipline more than 50 of America’s major school districts have implemented district-wide discipline reforms, and 27 states have revised their laws with an eye toward limiting suspensions. Discipline reformers, convinced that racial differences in student suspensions are largely attributable to teacher bias rather than student behavior, declare victory wherever suspension rates fall. But whatever the potential benefits to the relatively small share of students who avoid suspension, we know next to nothing about discipline reform’s potential costs.
As Matthew Steinberg and Johanna Lacoe noted in these pages, we have remarkably little conclusive evidence as to whether the difference in suspension rates is a product of racial bias, whether suspensions harm students, and how alternative disciplinary approaches stack up. They conclude that there is a “great need” for evidence, “on the impact of school discipline reforms and on their potential unintended consequences.”
There’s little evidence on the effects of discipline reform because the reforms are so recent and reliable data is scarce. Fortunately, the largest school district in America, New York City Public Schools, has administered an annual school-climate survey and publicly reported school-level results for the past decade. In the last five years, NYCPS has cut suspensions nearly in half under two reforms, both associated with approximately a 16,000 suspension decrease. Former Mayor Bloomberg’s reform, implemented in fall semester 2012, told teachers that they could no longer suspend a student for a first-time, low-level infraction. Mayor de Blasio’s reform, implemented in spring semester 2015, required principals to seek central office approval to suspend a student who committed repeated infractions.
To try to assess how school climate has shifted during these reforms, my recently released Manhattan Institute report, School Discipline Reform and Disorder, examines student and teacher responses to school-order related questions on the NYC School Survey. This is a descriptive examination not a causal analysis. It can tell us how school climate changed during discipline reforms but not whether school climate changed because....