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Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?

Authors: Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, Katrina Morrison, Shakti Belway
Date Published: February 23, 2015

The main body of this report documents gross disparities in the use of out-of-school suspension experienced by students with disabilities and those from historically disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and gender subgroups. The egregious disparities revealed in the pages that follow transform concerns about educational policy that allows frequent disciplinary removal into a profound matter of civil rights and social justice. This implicates the potentially unlawful denial of educational opportunity and resultant disparate impact on students in numerous districts across the country.
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Nearly 3.5 million public school students were suspended out of school at least once in 2011-12.12. 
That is more than one student suspended for every public school teacher in America. This means that more students were suspended in grades K-12 than were enrolled as high school seniors. To put this in perspective, the number of students suspended in just one school year could fill all of the stadium seats for nearly all the Super Bowls ever played—(the first 45). Moreover, recent estimates are that one in three students will be suspended at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade (Shollenberger, 2015).

If we ignore the discipline gap, we will be unable to close the achievement gap. Of the 3.5 million students who were suspended in 2011-12, 1.55 million were suspended at least twice. Given that the average suspension is conservatively put at 3.5 days, we estimate that U.S. public school children lost nearly 18 million days of instruction in just one school year because of exclusionary discipline.

Loss of classroom instruction time damages student performance. For example, one recent study (Attendance Works, 2014) found that missing three days of school in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress translated into fourth graders scoring a full grade level lower in reading on this test. New research shows that higher suspension rates are closely correlated with higher dropout and delinquency rates, and that they have tremendous economic costs for the suspended students (Marchbanks, 2015), as well as for society as a whole (Losen, 2015). Therefore, the large racial/ethnic disparities in suspensions that we document in this report likely will have an adverse and disparate impact on the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children. This supports our assertion that we will close the racial achievement gap only when we also address the school discipline gap.

Suspension rates typically are three to five times higher at the secondary level than at the elementary level, as illustrated in figure 1. Furthermore, the actual size of the racial gap, such as that between Blacks and Whites, is much greater at the secondary level. 

The national summary of suspension rate trends for grades K-12 indicates that these rates increased sharply from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, and then more gradually, until they leveled off in the most recent three-year period. We conclude that in this recent period, no real progress was made in reducing suspension rates for grades K-12. 

After many years of widening, the gap in suspension rates between Blacks and Whites and between Latinos and Whites narrowed slightly in the most recent time period—that is, the 2009-10 and 2011- 12 school years. The gap narrowed, however, only because of the increase in the White suspension rate. Specifically, 16% of Blacks and 7% of Latinos were suspended in both years, while rates for Whites rose from 4% to 5%.

We next broke down the national trend analysis to the elementary and secondary levels. We only had 
the necessary data for the three years shown in figure 3. Despite the persistence of deeply disturbing disparities, the good news is that we estimate a slight reduction nationally in suspension rates for Blacks, Latinos, and Whites at the secondary level, along with a small narrowing of the racial discipline gap. 

For information about a related Congressional briefing, "From the Police Precinct to the Principal's Office," which took place on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C., go here.

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