A bad headline on ‘bad apples’

There’s a lot of talk about accountability in education today; schools are held accountable, teachers are increasingly held accountable. But what about education PR firms?

Consider the “case of the bad apples.” Last week, the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, a twenty-six-person group based at Indiana University, released a research briefing that summarized sixteen studies presented at a recent conference. The quality of the briefing was basically fine, but the press release that went with it jumped the shark. (See it here.) News outlets such as Politico Pro and the Huffington Post then picked up its content.

The press release boldly states, “There is no evidence to support the premise that ‘bad kids’ should be removed from the classroom in order to ensure that ‘good kids’ can learn.”

This caught our attention at Fordham, for not only does this claim fly in the face of common sense (and every teachers’ experience, ever), it simply isn’t true. As Education Next pointed out, a quick look surfaces these two studies demonstrating the opposite. And they are surely the tip of the iceberg.

The mystery is why the press release made this claim in the first place (beyond the obvious answer: to throw some click-bait to reporters). The report is about racial disparities in school discipline, not about the impact of suspensions on the peers of disruptive students. So what happened? The sixteen-page research briefing does briefly mention the issue:

Schools that reduce their suspension rates can simultaneously improve academic outcomes: One oft-repeated justification for frequent suspensions is that schools must be able to remove the “bad” students so that “good” students can learn. There is no research to support this popular theory.

(See, again, the two studies that Education Next pointed out.)

To support its theory, the collaborative cites two reports—but, in both cases, the authors were, at best, mistaken.[i] The first citation is to a report written by a member of the collaborative and five others. I’m placing the citation in an endnote[ii] because it’s long and because, after a lengthy search, we could only find a PDF of a draft that said we could not circulate or cite without express consent of the authors. We’re going to honor their request. The draft, however, literally says nothing about the academic outcomes of students who remain in a classroom after a disruptive student has been removed. We invite you to do your own search and trust that you’ll concur.

The second report the research brief cites fares a bit better in that it does actually discuss the issue—a little. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say what the research brief say it does.[iii] In one respect, it says nothing about test scores or graduation rates. Instead, it says, “A school that makes frequent use of suspension and expulsion does not necessarily create an environment that enables the overall school to achieve better academic outcomes.” In another respect, the report directly contradicts the research brief: “Even though these nine selected schools, alike in their student populations, disciplined students at different rates, they did not differ in attendance rates or in the percentage of students who repeated a grade” (emphasis added).

News moves quickly, and journalists are going to get stuff wrong. We understand that. But it’s a problem when news outlets proliferate unsupported or clearly incorrect statements. As sources of information, we are all thought leaders (even if David Brooks and others are hesitant to use or accept that label). People count on us for reliable information. We ought to be more careful.

Unfortunately, such mistakes are unlikely to cease. It took almost an entire work day of detective work to conclude that the statements of the collaborative and the contracted PR firm were in error. Hardly anyone is going to put in that effort—nor should they. The only solution is to hold original sources of information accountable for their purported statements of fact. The Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative does some great work on the discipline gap issue, but we think they got this wrong.

So let’s be clear: there is evidence to support the premise that “bad kids” should be removed from the classroom in order to ensure that “good kids” can learn. And you can quote us on that.

[i] The research brief also cites evidence of two districts that support their position. I’m not going to fully discuss these because the support is anecdotal and causation is nearly impossible to prove.

[ii] Skiba, R., Trachok, M., Chung, C. G., Baker, T., Sheya, A., & Hughes, R. (in press). Where should we intervene? Contributions of behavior, student, and school characteristics to suspension and expulsion. In Losen, D. (Ed.), Closing the school discipline gap: Research for policymakers. New York: Teachers College Press.

[iii] The research brief says, “An even larger study that tracked every middle school student in Texas and controlled for over 80 variables found that the higher-suspending schools tended to have higher grade retention and lower graduation rates, while producing no benefits in terms of test scores.”


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