Kaitlin Anderson Seeks to Understand the Impact of School Suspensions on Academic Outcomes

Kaitlin Anderson explores the relationship between disciplinary responses to student behavior and students’ academic outcomes.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Illustration by Keith Negley

A school can suspend a student for a number of offenses—fighting, disorderly conduct, insubordination, truancy, vandalism—temporarily removing the student from either the classroom or the school building for a set amount of time. But how do suspensions impact student outcomes such as achievement or grade retention?

“We often make very strong assumptions about the causal impact of something like a suspension on these outcomes, because it's very intuitive to suggest that if a kid is not in school, they can't learn,” says Kaitlin Anderson, an assistant professor of educational leadership. “And if the actual negative academic consequences precede the misbehavior—for example, if students are already struggling in school, they already are disengaged from school, they already don't feel like their teachers respect or want them there—then they might act up in school.” In this case, the consequence can be suspension.

Anderson calls this a “vicious cycle,” as these other factors related to misbehavior make it challenging to identify the causal relationship between suspensions and negative student outcomes. Studies have demonstrated that exclusionary discipline correlates with negative student outcomes, Anderson says, but “we still aren't really fully able to capture that causal relationship because it is so entangled in that cycle.”

Clippings of a detention slip

In an effort to better understand the relationship between disciplinary responses and academic outcomes, Anderson and her colleagues, Gary W. Ritter, now Dean of the School of Education at St. Louis University and Gema Zamarro, Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas, examined 10 years of student-level demographic, achievement and disciplinary data from all K–12 public schools in Arkansas. The team estimated the relationship between seven types of disciplinary responses and student math test scores and grade retention, controlling for the type of behavioral infraction. This approach, the team writes in a paper published in the journal Educational Researcher, seeks to disentangle “the impact of the consequence from the underlying factors causing misbehavior.” This is a contribution over most prior work that generally looks at the relationship between receiving a suspension and student outcomes, without considering what led to the suspension in the first place.

Their results control for observable characteristics that might also contribute to the type of consequence chosen—gender, race, ethnicity, special education status, English proficiency, grade level, the school they attend, and even behavioral history—and compared students who received different consequences for the same infraction. This enabled the team to account for selection into consequence type and to “get more at the ‘all else equal’ or that ceteris paribus relationship between the consequence and those student outcomes,” says Anderson.

The team found that less exclusionary consequences, such as Saturday school or detention, are associated with better outcomes relative to in-school or out-of-school suspensions, but note the need for future studies to understand which approaches are most successful. The data also indicates that the association between suspensions, expulsions and negative academic outcomes may be larger for students from historically underserved backgrounds. Additionally, the team found that a student’s first disciplinary consequence in a given year is associated with larger academic declines, suggesting that preventative strategies or those that provide alternatives to exclusions for first time infractions could be an effective strategy.

Despite accounting for selection into consequence types to the extent possible, the researchers still suggest using caution when interpreting the results, as there still are unobservable factors that can contribute to the choice of a consequence. “We still can't really call it a causal relationship, but [these exclusionary consequences are] related to more negative outcomes, both in terms of test scores and grade retention,” Anderson says. “...We should be aiming to reduce our reliance on those exclusionary practices, but we also need to be thinking about what we do in a more preventative or supportive way to reduce the need for discipline referrals to begin with.”

Anderson has published her work on school suspensions in the journals Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Educational Administration Quarterly and the Peabody Journal of Education. She describes her research agenda as focused “on systemic issues related to education policies, and in particular how they might disparately impact different groups, or how they might be implemented differently across different school contexts.” Her time as a high school math teacher and Teach for America Corps Member in rural Arkansas, she says, helped shape her approach.

“As a teacher I saw how systems and policies were really inequitably providing opportunities to certain groups of students and not others,” she says.

Kaitlin Anderson’s research focuses on policies affecting educational equity and opportunity. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and was a post-doctoral research associate in the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University.

Illustration by Keith Negley

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Illustration by Keith Negley

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