Study: Zero Tolerance Does Not Improve Learning

Bringing dangerous weapons or drugs into school accounts for about 5 percent of suspensions, but the other 95 percent is incurred by general “disruptive behavior.” Are these relatively small misdeeds justification for such a widespread use of zero tolerance discipline policies? That’s what a new report entitled Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice explores. Produced by the National Education Policy Center and authored by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project, the report concludes that taking students out of the classroom does not positively affect the education of the better-behaved students. The report also finds a great racial disparity in the way students are disciplined, as well as the consequences of such disciplinary actions.

Losen examines the idea that removing the offending child presents a better learning environment. This in turn suggests higher academic results for the rest of the students. However, the report finds that zero tolerance suspension policies do not result in higher test scores for the remaining learners.

“The frequent use of disciplinary removal is likely not educationally justifiable,” Losen says, “but is likely to have a negative impact on students and their families.”

The report also finds that a disproportionate number of students of color are more severely punished – specifically suspended – for breaking school rules. Data show that this trend has tripled since the early 1970s. Losen shows that White students are disciplined for more objective offenses, such as “smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and using obscene language.”

Black students, however, are punished for wrongdoings that require more subjective judgment from the teacher, administrator, or staff member. These less concrete transgressions include excessive noise and disrespectful behavior. Additionally, Black students are suspended for first-time offenses at rates almost double their White counterparts.

Furthermore, a 2010 study, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, conducted at 18 of the country’s largest school districts, found that “hundreds of individual schools” had an alarmingly high number of suspension rates for Black males, with numbers over 50 per cent. In 15 of the same 18 schools, one-third of all Black male students were suspended at least once.

Losen suggests an alternative method to disciplining students in the form of system-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS emphasizes appropriate student behavior, while working to tailor school disciplinary practices. He also proposes more effective and specialized training measures for teachers and other school leaders. He notes, “The significantly higher rates of suspensions as students move from elementary to middle school suggest that classroom management problems become greater as young children become adolescents and are more likely to challenge authority figures.”

Losen also recommends guidance for teachers with added multicultural components to foster more sensitivity, as well as leadership training.

The National Education Association believes that while it is clear that protecting the students and staff from misbehavior and disruptions is one of school leaders‘ most important responsibilities, it is not clear that zero tolerance policies are succeeding in improving school safety. Find out more about NEA’s position on zero tolerance.