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Lost Instruction: The Disparate Impact of the School Discipline Gap in California

Authors: Daniel J. Losen and Amir Whitaker
Date Published: October 24, 2017

This report is the first to analyze California’s school discipline data as measured by days of missed instruction due to suspension.
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Executive Summary


This report is the first to analyze California’s school discipline data as measured by days of missed instruction due to suspension. The state reports the number of suspensions for each district, disaggregated by racial/ethnic groups, but it

does not provide any information on how much instructional time was lost. We used information from two large California school districts and several states to estimate conservatively that each suspension causes approximately two days of missed instruction. One obvious reason suspensions contribute to a decrease in the graduation rate, as demonstrated in our prior report released this spring, The Hidden Costs of California’s Harsh Discipline, is that getting suspended denies access to instruction, and missing instruction has been shown to contribute to lower achievement. Our previous report examined the economic impact of suspension for every district in the state. To demonstrate the cost of suspensions in more concrete and immediate terms, this report describes the impact suspension has on instruction and analyzes data from every district. The report shows that there is a racially disparate impact, as measured by the amount of lost instruction, and that a great deal of that disparate impact results from suspending students frequently for the most minor violations of the code of conduct—the nonviolent, non-drug-related behaviors that fall under the catchall code of disruptive or defiant behavior. 

The report’s key findings are as follows:

1. Despite a recent decline in the use of suspension in California schools, many students are still losing a great deal of instruction time due to school discipline. We estimate that more than 840,000 days of instruction were lost during the 2014-15 school year alone.

2. Adjusted for enrollment, we found that students lost approximately 13 days of instruction for every 100 enrolled.

3. Our estimate showed that the largest decline in lost instruction was for Black students, yet large racial gaps persist; the largest is between Black and White students. In 2014-15, Blacks still lost approximately 43 days of instruction per 100 enrolled, compared to 11 days lost per 100 White students. That means Blacks lost an average of 32 more days than Whites per 100 enrolled.

4. The frequency of suspension and the impact on lost instruction was greatest in the alternative and specialized schools run by the county offices of education. In these schools, Black students lost 92 days of instruction per 100 enrolled, compared to 18 for White students.

5. All students attending high school districts lost, on average, more than 18 days per 100 students, but Black students in these districts lost an average of 62 days per 100 enrolled.

6. The most minor suspension category, referred to as “disruption or defiance” was shown to be a major contributor to the large racial disparities in the amount of lost instruction. For example, although offenses for this category account for approximately 30% of all suspensions, among the districts with the largest Black/White difference in lost instruction, where Black students on average lost 65 more days of instruction per 100 than White students, the disruption/defiance category contributed to 41% of the racial difference.

7. In districts with the largest Latino/White gaps in terms of lost instruction, Latinos lost 45 more days than Whites, and the disruption/defiance category contributed to 71% of that difference.

8. Similarly, in California’s 25 highest suspending districts, the disruption/defiance category contributed to 45% of lost instruction, well above the statewide average of 30%.

Our report does not provide a comprehensive review of the impact of LAUSD’s suspension policy; however, in our discussion section we respond to claims that discipline reform will beget chaos in our schools. Contrary to some misleading assertions specific to LAUSD, school climate has mostly improved in the district since the disruption/defiance category was eliminated. In fact, the latest LAUSD survey shows that the district now has the highest “sense of safety” ratings in the last five years, with more than 80% of students agreeing with the statement that they “feel safe at school” in 2016-17.

Recommendations:  A few years ago, Governor Brown signed into law a limit on suspending young children for disruption or defiance, which will “sunset” in January 2018. At the very least, these limits should be renewed. The state of California has since made school discipline one of the indicators in the statewide accountability plan that it submitted for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. One noteworthy aspect of California’s efforts is that discipline reform is focused on improving the conditions of learning, and on finding effective, educationally sound alternatives to removing students from instruction as punishment in general, and in particular for minor misbehaviors. Moreover, the policy changes made by the state are aligned with the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) goals, such that each district has some funds to implement initiatives in discipline reform and ensure that they are grounded in improving the state’s schools for all children. California’s LCAP is a good example for the nation of how to pair state policy directives with local support: what California does well can and should inform what other states do. However, state policy should ensure effective discipline practices in all districts: if a student in one district who breaks a school rule is taught to correct his or her behavior and stays in school with no negative repercussions, why should a similarly misbehaving student in another district or in a charter school be suspended repeatedly, lose instructional time, and be put at risk of dropping out? 

The following research-based recommendations for improving California’s efforts are highly relevant to other states:

• Provide resources and technical assistance to help teachers and school leaders improve school climate, including training focused on improving student engagement; on implementing restorative practices or other systemic approaches designed to prevent misbehavior; and on responding effectively to problematic behavior.

• Expand efforts to reduce suspensions at the state and district levels to include grades K-12, including eliminating the use of in-school and out-of-school suspension for all minor behaviors, including but not limited to those covered by the state’s catchall disruption/defiance category.

• Reinforce changes to school behavior codes to make them more focused on prevention and less on punishment, and provide enough resources to ensure appropriate support for educators and to implement those changes with integrity.

• Monitor and report to the public disaggregated discipline data by race, gender, and disability status.

• Report to the public the actual days of missed instruction, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and type of offense. Issue a timely report for each school year at the beginning of the next academic year.

• Increase data collection and reporting on discipline by grade level and across subgroup categories, such as race with gender, and pilot the collection of data on LGTBQ youth.

• Provide technical assistance to high-suspending districts.

• Set goals for accountability plans to reduce disciplinary exclusion as part of state and local standards.

• Invest in research to identify what works in order to go beyond lowering suspension rates and close the discipline gaps by race, disability, and gender. Research should include an exploration of the relationship between suspension rates and academic outcomes, such as proficiency in core subject matter and graduation rates.

• Comply with federal law that requires states to report to the public annually on the school discipline of students with disabilities, by race and disability category.

Additional data mapping can be found at:!/vizhome/LostInstruction/LostStory


In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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