Getting Tough? The Effects of Discretionary Principal Discipline on Student Outcomes

Research Rundown Issue: May '20
Publisher: Annenberg Institute at Brown University
Date Published: April '20


Researchers at RAND, Duke University, and the University at Albany-SUNY analyzed North Carolina’s disciplinary, education, and criminal justice records in order to understand the impact of principal-driven disciplinary decisions—the propensity to remove (PTR)—on middle school outcomes. Their analysis found that higher-PTR principals reduced minor disciplinary actions like being late for class, bus misbehavior, cutting class, and property damage. However, their analysis also found that these higher-PTR principals increased the likelihood of student removal by 7 percentage points, meaning they were much more likely to assign out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or school transfers.

Their analysis also found that this drives disengagement for students of color. In some schools, principals were more likely to remove a black student for the same offense as a white student—not surprisingly, these schools had significantly higher absenteeism and lower test scores and graduation rates for black and Latino students. For white students this was the complete opposite: their absenteeism was lower, and their test scores and graduation rates increased. The authors conclude that “principal discretion in assigning punishment can have serious consequences for students,  particularly if principals use that discretion to treat students differently based on the student’s race or ethnicity.” These findings are in alignment with recent research from Stanford which found a link between achievement gaps and exclusionary discipline practices.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Minnesota’s history of disproportionately suspending and expelling students of color is well-documented, as are the egregious black-white achievement gaps. Local advocates have been calling for legislative action on school discipline for years; working to ensure all students, and particularly students of color and students with special needs, are not needlessly pushed out of the classroom. This research indicates that reforming discipline should remain a priority both for policymakers and practitioners.

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