cause and effect

Do suspensions lead to higher dropout rates and other academic problems? In New York City, the answer could be yes

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protested the city's suspension policy.

Reams of research show that students who are suspended are also more likely to drop out, get sucked into the juvenile justice system, and face a slew of other academic challenges.

But a crucial question has largely gone unanswered: Do suspensions themselves cause those negative outcomes, or are the factors that led to the suspension in the first place the real culprit — or some combination of both?

New research focusing on New York City offers fresh evidence to help answer that question. The paper, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Education, suggests that suspensions really do contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

The findings add new evidence to a heated debate playing out in New York and across the country about how suspensions affect students, and whether dramatically reducing them could boost outcomes for students of color and those with disabilities, groups that are disproportionately suspended.

Using data from roughly 70,000 New York City high school students collected between 2005 and 2011, Columbia University researchers Liz Chu and Doug Ready attempted to isolate the effects of suspensions by comparing students’ academic records during a semester in which they were suspended with a different semester in which the same students were not suspended.

By comparing students with themselves across different semesters — the difference being whether they were suspended — the paper tries to zero in on the suspension’s effect, minimizing factors like a student’s home life that can be difficult to measure and complicate comparisons between different students.

In the short term, suspensions seemed to have modest, but notable, consequences. They contributed to a 3 percentage point reduction in passing math classes and 4 percent for English classes. A suspension was also linked to a 2 percentage point increase in the likelihood of dropping out the following semester, and an additional absence from school.

Those results were consistent for more serious types of suspensions, with the exception that students tended to be absent for even more days (despite being removed from their classrooms, students facing serious “superintendent” suspensions are still typically expected to show up for classes in an alternative setting).

The authors acknowledge their findings don’t prove that suspensions are the root cause of negative consequences such as declines in academic performance. The methodology can’t definitively rule out that outside factors — such as a death in the family — caused a student to perform worse academically and also triggered behavior problems that led to the suspension.

“These methods are eliminating a lot of that bias, but they’re still not likely eliminating all of it,” said Kaitlin Anderson a researcher at Michigan State University who has studied school discipline and reviewed the paper at Chalkbeat’s request. “I think it’s definitely a more novel approach than most of [the research] out there.”

Anderson’s own research focusing on students in Arkansas found suspensions did not seem to have a negative effect on test scores in the year following a suspension.

In New York City, the authors saw more dramatic long-term effects, noting that students were significantly less likely to pass Regents exams required for graduation, and were less likely to graduate on time. However, those findings are based on a different statistical method that is less able to tease out cause and effect, and which compares students with other peers at the same high school.

The paper could bolster the arguments of those who favor reforming school districts’ discipline codes to reduce suspensions. But because the findings are based on data that was collected years before New York City changed its school discipline policies to reduce suspensions, the paper doesn’t offer any direct evidence about how those efforts are playing out. Critics argue that the new discipline policies have led to less orderly classrooms, something the study doesn’t examine.  

Still, Chu, one of the paper’s authors, argues that the new research offers some evidence that alternatives to suspensions are worth pursuing.

“If you take this along the other rich detail that exists about the harmful effects of suspension,” she said, “it makes it even more difficult for a critic who thinks suspensions aren’t that bad for students to stand in that position.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That request will make Michigan the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.