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Lost Opportunities: How Disparate School Discipline Continues to Drive Differences in the Opportunity to Learn

By Daniel J. Losen Paul Martinez
Teenage boy sitting on floor with this arms covering his face

Students across the nation are experiencing diminished opportunities to learn among their peers and in the presence of fully trained teachers. Out-of-school suspensions and other disciplinary measures, along with significant schooling modifications caused by COVID-19, have created circumstances in which students are experiencing learning loss for significant periods of time. The racial and economic disparities among students who experience this learning loss suggest persistent and widespread inequities in educational opportunity.

During the 2015–16 school year, according to national estimates released by the U.S. Department of Education in May 2020, there nearly 11.4 million days of instruction lost due to out-of-school suspension—the equivalent of 62,596 years of lost learning. Now, for the first time, the impact of out-of-school suspensions on days of lost instruction is visible for every student group in every district in the nation. Even still, learning loss caused by out-of-school suspensions is most prevalent among students in secondary schools, students of color—particularly black male students, and students with disabilities.

National estimates show 11,392,474 days of instruction lost due to out-of-school suspension during the 2015–16 school year. That is the equivalent of 62,596 years of instruction lost.

Now, with the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have continuously experienced some degree of suspended education since March 2020. Physical time away from school results not only in learning loss, but also in a loss of resources that some students rely on for their well-being. For many students, schools provide access to mental health services, special education supports, and other student support services. Both access to quality time in the classroom and support for students’ whole person are crucial to their ability to thrive. Furthermore, the effects of COVID-19 are likely to have a greater impact on students of color, students from low-income families, and those with disabilities, furthering inequities in educational opportunity.

This report focuses on the learning loss students experience as a result of disciplinary action centered on out-of-school suspensions and other approaches that remove students from the classroom. The stark disparities in lost instruction described raise the question of how the achievement gap can be closed without closing the discipline gap. The achievement gap is exacerbated by current disciplinary standards as schools continue to rely on out-of-school time as a response to misconduct. As long as students are not able to access meaningful, equitable learning opportunities, the achievement gap will remain, and inequities will persist. This report offers local, state, and federal policy recommendations designed to mitigate learning loss caused by out-of-school suspensions, school policing, referrals to law enforcement, and school-related arrests. The goal of the recommendations are to reduce the harm experienced by the groups that are most often suspended by reducing both the use and the duration of suspensions and to prioritize efforts that help prevent misconduct.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Eliminate unnecessary removals.
  2. Switch to more effective policies and practices that serve an educational purpose.
  3. Review and respond to discipline disparities to promote more equitable outcomes.

Key findings

  • In many districts, secondary students lost more than a year of instruction per 100 enrolled students. The disaggregated district data showing the rates of lost instruction are the only data of their kind available. The U.S. Department of Education provided the raw data from nearly every school and district but not the comparable rates of lost instruction created for this report.
  • Rates of lost instruction reveal that due to out-of-school suspensions, students at the secondary level lose instruction at rates that are five times higher than those at the elementary level.
  • National trend lines in rates of student suspension for 2015–16 show reduced reliance by schools on both in- and out-of-school suspensions, and a slight narrowing of the racial discipline gap yet, in many districts, student suspension rates are much higher than the national average and many also show rising rates and widening racial disparities.
  • There is a widespread failure by districts to report data on school policing despite the requirements of federal law. More than 60% of the largest school districts, including New York City and Los Angeles, reported zero school-related arrests. The prevalence of zeros suggests that much of the school-policing data from 2015–16 required by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) were incomplete or missing. OCR completed its data collection from the 2017–18 school year in June 2019. As of August 6, 2020, none of the newer data have been publicly reported by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • There is an indication of widespread noncompliance with the reporting requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) that explicitly requires public reporting of the collected school-policing data in annual state and district report cards (in accord with the OCR data collection). As of July 2020, not one state had fully met ESSA’s state and district report card obligation regarding their 2017–18 school-policing data.

Lost Opportunities: How Disparate School Discipline Continues to Drive Differences in the Opportunity to Learn by Daniel J. Losen and Paul Martinez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This report is published jointly by the Learning Policy Institute and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project, UCLA.

This research was supported by the California Endowment and the Learning Policy Institute. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.