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NEA News

School Suspensions Lead to Stark Losses in Instructional Time

A new report reveals that 11 million-plus learning days are lost to out-of-school suspension. Students are being pushed out of class - even in the virtual learning environment.
school suspensions
Published: November 19, 2020

Key Takeaways

  1. Zero tolerance and other exclusionary school discipline policies are pushing kids out of the classroom at record rates.
  2. The UCLA Civil Rights Project released a new report called "Lost Opportunities," a national analysis of suspension data and a comprehensive look at the 11 million instructional days lost to out-of-school suspensions.
  3. Educators can help reduce harsh policies that harm students, particularly Black and brown students, as well as students with disabilities.

Zero tolerance and other exclusionary school discipline policies are pushing kids out of the classroom at record rates—and COVID-19 hasn’t made much of a difference. In fact, it’s added another layer to disciplinary rules.

In August, ChalkBeat reported that in Jacksonville, Fla., students found not wearing a mask could be removed from school and made to learn online and in some school districts in Texas, purposely coughing on someone can be classified as assault. Remote learning has created additional rules, too. In Shelby County, Tenn., for example, students are not to wear pajamas, hats, hoods, or sleeveless shirts on screen. They can’t eat or drink during remote learning, either. Consequences for these actions can result in a virtual in-school suspension.

These harsh policies and practices keeps student—particularly Black and brown students, as well as students with special needs—from learning and the total loss of instructional time has reached unprecedented levels.

11 Million Learning Days Lost

In October, the UCLA Civil Rights Project released a national analysis of suspension data that details the disparities among racial groups and provides a comprehensive look at the 11 million instructional days lost to out-of-school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year (the most recent data available). 

The report, “Lost Opportunities,” found the rate of lost instruction in secondary school is more than five times higher than the elementary school rates—37 days lost per 100 middle and high school students compared to just 7 days per 100 elementary school students.

Additionally, students of color are disciplined at disproportionate rates due to  heightened severity for minor infractions that used to warrant a trip to the principal’s office--and often contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The rates for Black students and other students of color are starkly higher than those of white students. Black students lost 103 days per 100 students enrolled, 82 more days than the 21 days their white peers lost due to out-of-school suspensions. Alarming disparities are also observed when looking at race with gender. Black boys lost 132 days per 100 students enrolled. Black girls had the second highest rate, at 77 days per 100 students enrolled. 

The research also finds that state-level racial disparities are often larger than the national disparities suggest, and shows multiple states with exceedingly high rates of loss of instruction for students of color when compared to their white peers.

For example, a comparison of rates of lost instruction show that Black students in Missouri lost 162 more days of instructional time than white students. In New Hampshire, Latino students lost 75 more days than white students. And in North Carolina, Native American students lost 102 more days than white students.

At a school district level, the disaggregated district data reveals some rates and disparities that are far higher and wider than most would imagine based on the state and national averages, especially for Black students and students with disabilities.

“These stark disparities in lost instruction explain why we cannot close the achievement gap if we do not close the discipline gap,” says Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the lead researcher on the report. “With all the instructional loss students have had due to COVID-19, educators should have to provide very sound justification for each additional day they prohibit access to instruction.”

‘More Work Needs to be Done’

“It’s sad to hear students are being [disciplined] for having a pajama top on in remote learning,” says Gina Harris, a culture and climate coach at Oak Park Elementary District 97 in Illinois. “I live and work in a progressive community [and] we’re doing a lot to mitigate those factors so students aren’t punished for not having their cameras on because of their home situation or that our grading system isn’t treating them unfairly because they didn’t have access to a printer.”

Harris’s district has a high level of accountability when it comes to equity. School improvement plans, for example, are based on the recognition that African American students often don’t feel a sense of belonging or have been impacted by exclusionary disciplinary polices. The work the district takes is multifaceted.

“We created a restorative practices cohort and we're training people…across the district in restorative community building and restorative practices to begin to change the culture in the school.”

“These stark disparities in lost instruction explain why we cannot close the achievement gap if we do not close the discipline gap. With all the instructional loss students have had due to COVID-19, educators should have to provide very sound justification for each additional day they prohibit access to instruction.”

Over the course of the year, educators become leaders in their school buildings and develop a restorative culture, which looks at developing relationships in a school so students and staff feel a sense of belonging and commitment.

Instructional coaches along with cultural and climate coaches assist school staff and educators on how to have constructive conversations about race, ensure all voices are prioritized, and address aspects of white supremacy culture when it creeps into meeting spaces.

“It’s not a perfect science,” says Harris. “It requires a high level of courage and saying what needs to get said even when people are uncomfortable—and there needs to be an acceptance of the discomfort.”

Harris says progress is being made in this area, but “more work needs to be done.”

Practices to Help Reduce Suspension Rates

As a culture and climate coach for her school district, Harris finds that one of the biggest barriers to creating better policies around discipline stems from teachers who don’t recognize students of color are being treated unequally.

“You cannot stop doing something that you do not recognize,” she says. And while the idea of changing school or district policy sounds daunting, Harris says there are several things teachers can do, and it starts in your own classrooms. She suggests the following:

Awareness: Be aware of your classroom practices to determine whether you are mitigating or contributing to disciplinary policies that prevent students from learning. “I find that many are not aware that they're doing it and to become aware you have to do your own form of equity audit as you teach,” explains Harris.

Relationships: Build relationships by asking questions. For example, ask students what’s been their experiences in your classroom. This gives teachers an opportunity to develop a relationship with students that they otherwise would not have. Additionally, be open and willing to learn who your students are as individuals versus them as a monolith. Take it to the next level, by actually asking students, “What is your experience of me as a teacher? Have there been things that I’ve said or done,” suggests Harris.

Tools are available for teachers to survey students. One such program is called, Copilot-Elevate, a learning program that uses student voice surveys to enhance professional practice. It gives educators ongoing, formative feedback and best practices so they can create engaging and equitable experiences.

Mindfulness: While culturally inclusive pedagogy is essential to teaching practices, equally important is an understanding of who’s voice is being prioritized in your classroom. What opinions, ideas, and beliefs are being perpetuated in your classroom that garner the same outcomes? A higher level of awareness is needed on the part of the educator to know how classroom practices are affecting students. For example, have you observed a student of color and a white student do the same thing? If so, what was your reaction and how do you alter that reaction?

Next Steps: Have conversations with your colleagues about what they’re doing and how to make equity work a team effort. Speak to administrators about what’s being done to address harmful disciplinary policies and the disparities between different demographics. Determine school-wide norms and identify resources for those educators who want to get more engaged and involved.

Recommendations from the ‘Lost Opportunities’ Report

“Lost Opportunities” offers a series of recommendations that include helping to eliminate unnecessary removals for lower-level offenses and reduce the length of suspensions for other moderate and serious offenses, when practicable. Plus, a review and response to discipline disparities to promote more equitable outcomes. The report underscores that equitable approaches should include efforts to diminish the influence of racism and improve the multicultural responsiveness of all adult members of the school community, including regular reflection on the disparities in exclusionary discipline and its impact on the opportunity to learn.

“The point of such reflection,” according to the report, “is not only to discourage the use of suspensions, but also to reduce their length when they are used which will help diminish their disparate impact as much as possible.”

More Resources

Read “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and The Pursuit of Educational Freedom” by Dr. Bettina Love. For Harris, who also teaches teacher preparation courses at Roosevelt University in Chicago, this is required reading, as the book underscores the struggles and the possibilities of committing oneself to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex.

NEA Leaders for Just Schools is a program that is building a national network of educators who advance equitable outcomes for students. Created by educators for educators, the Leaders for Just Schools curriculum allows participants to dive into understanding equity, investigate how bias impacts conditions of teaching and learning, and explore ways in which they can improve school culture so that every student has the opportunity to succeed. Contact your state affiliate president to share your interest in the Leaders for Just Schools program.

Learn about discipline in a virtual environment and how to create a virtual school culture that is healthy, just, and strong by addressing discriminatory policies and practices that often contribute to disproportionate discipline.

Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators, who use materials to supplement their curriculum, inform their practices, and create civil and inclusive school communities where students are respected, valued and welcome participants.

Equity Literacy Institute takes a comprehensive approach for creating and sustaining equitable schools. More than cultural competence or diversity awareness, equity literacy prepares educators to recognize even the subtlest forms of bias, inequity, and oppression related to race, class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and other factors. Free resources are available.

National Equity Project specializes in helping districts improve the racial climate in their schools. Their website includes a collection of articles, webinars, podcasts, and more.

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