If you asked parents of New York’s students what needs to change most about the schools, they almost certainly won’t tell you that they need to be made less safe.
Yet when state education officials unveiled their plan for holding schools accountable under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, that seemed to be exactly where their priorities were.
Officials are proposing that schools be evaluated in part by suspension rates: The higher the rate, the lower the score. The lower the score, the higher the odds of being labeled failing and being targeted for state intervention, and no school wants that. What could go wrong?
If we learned anything from No Child Left Behind, it’s that schools will game the system. But NCLB was about test scores; suspensions are a lot easier to manipulate: You simply stop suspending kids.
Officials are proposing that schools be evaluated in part by suspension rates... What could go wrong?
History tells us what happens next. In a study released this spring, I analyzed student and teacher perceptions of school safety in the wake of Mayor de Blasio’s landmark suspension-reduction initiative. After his plan was implemented, perceptions of order and safety plummeted district-wide, most precipitously at schools serving 90-plus percent minority students. Students at 50 percent of those schools said violence was more frequent, compared to 14 percent where matters improved, and reports of drug use and gang activity increased at approximately four times as many schools as it decreased.
New York City is hardly a unique case. After Chicago limited school suspensions, researchers found a significant deterioration in teacher-reported classroom order and student-reported peer relationships. After Los Angeles limited school suspensions, the percentage of students who said they felt safe in school plummeted from 72 to 60. After St. Paul. Minn., limited school suspensions, the number of student assaults on staff tripled in one year. After Oklahoma City limited suspensions, one teacher reported she was “told that referrals would not require suspension unless there was blood.”
That’s not exactly a healthy approach to school management. But under New York’s plan, it would be an entirely rational one. To avoid being labeled failing, schools will suspend fewer students.
Or at least pretend they’re suspending fewer students. A Washington Post investigation revealed that school leaders in Washington, DC, were deliberately hiding school suspensions from district administrators. Perhaps principals decided that between actually reducing suspensions and lying about reducing suspensions, the latter was the lesser of two evils.
So, why would New York make this a statewide policy? It stems from the ideological conviction that suspensions harm students, putting them into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
There is, however, remarkably little evidence that suspensions harm students. In fact, perhaps the most rigorous study, by University of Arkansas researchers, found a small academic benefit to suspensions, and a study by a University of Georgia professor found that efforts to decrease the racial-suspension gap actually increase the racial achievement gap.
While it would go too far to conclude that suspensions are necessarily beneficial, the research debunks the notion that they cause significant harm.
Yet social-justice advocates will insist that suspensions cause harm, that the racial disparity in suspensions is caused by teacher bias rather than differences in student behavior and that the state must step in to fix it.
But what better way to amplify a “school-to-prison pipeline” than by removing consequences for students’ misbehavior?
Gov. Cuomo must review and sign off on this plan before New York submits it to the federal Department of Education for approval. On charter schools, he has shown a clear willingness to buck ideology in favor of evidence about what’s best for kids. State education plans should help bad schools improve, not encourage them to put students at risk.
To keep schools orderly and safe, Cuomo should take a red pen to New York’s plan and write “redo.”
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post