Friday, September 9, 2011

Majority of Texas Middle and High School Students Suspended At Least Once

In the debate this week, it appears the single major word that Texas Governor Rick Perry used most often was "border."  Many uses of that term came as he talked about how dangerous things are along the Texas-Mexico border.

However, it appears that the border line isn't the only dangerous place in Texas.  A six-year study of one million students in Texas--all the 7th grade public school students in Texas in 2000, 2001, and 2002--discovered that between 7th-12th grade, nearly 60% were expelled or suspended from school at least once.  Because only a small fraction of these cases (3%) were legislatively-mandated (violations such as illegal drugs or bringing a weapon to school), it indicates that the vast majority of these suspensions or expulsions were done at the discretion of the school.

The study, which was conducted by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University,  considered many variables, including age and income level, but found that only two sub-populations in the student body had higher-than-average suspension/expulsion rates:  African Americans and student with certain learning disabilities.  The data reported that 75% of African American had some form of discipline, compared to 65% of Hispanics and 47% of white students.  For students with educational disabilities, 75% of all disabled students, and 90% of students with an emotional disability, were expelled or suspended at least once, compared to 55% of students without any recorded disability.

The report also addresses the consequences that being suspended or expelled has on student success.  Of the 60% of students who had been so disciplined, 31% were held back for at least one year (which many previous studies link to poor academic achievement and higher drop out rates) and 10% officially dropped out (the study also notes that the system underreports how many students have actually dropped out but haven't completed the official paperwork confirming that decision).  Among the 40% who made it through school without suspensions or expulsions, 5% repeated at least one grade and 2% officially dropped out before graduation.  Even worse was the correlation between suspensions and expulsions to being involved in actual crimes; of those who had been so disciplined, almost a quarter eventually became involved in the juvenile justice system, compared to only 2% among the non-disciplined population.

The problem with reports like this is that they are only dealing with numerical correlations, not cause and effect.  So how people interpret the results probably depends on whether your world view is more Hobbesian (who described the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) or Rousseau-ian (who argued that poor human institutions warp people's natural tendencies towards both self-sufficiency and compassion).  That is, some people think that the high number of drop-outs and juvenile offenders among those who have been disciplined is just common sense; their innate bad behavior and/or anti-social principles showed up in school, and was properly disciplined, before they engaged in actual crimes or stopped bothering with school.   Thus, the students' bad character was the cause of both the suspension/expulsion and the dropping out/juvenile crime.  Others, however, wonder to what extent such harsh discipline actually caused the high drop out and juvenile justice figures.  This side would argue that when struggling students are banned from school (for a short term or permanently), that encourages them to spend their time with "bad influences" and/or have more time and opportunity to get into trouble.  In addition, students who have been suspended or expelled probably have more negative feelings about school--either around their ability to succeed there, or whether it is a hostile and unfair, rather than a nurturing and encouraging, place to be, which effects their decisions about whether or not to continue their education and to pursue fields outside the illegal alternative available to them.  The study, however, does not contain the kind of information that helps to support or refute either interpretation.

And I don't know about you, but my immediate reaction to these findings were "They suspend or expel 60%?  Surely they can't have THAT many "bad" students in Texas!  If so, the Wild, Wild West ethos must still rule in the Lone Star state."   But am I just uninformed?  How far from the "norm" is a 60% suspension/expulsion rate?  It turns out that is a hard question to answer, because the study had a more comprehensive database and addressed the question in a way that hadn't been done before.  So I was never able to find a national average for suspensions and expulsions (although, I will  admit, this was not an exhaustive effort....given that this blog is done with the time and money I have to spare after everything else I do).  But I did find at least some information in my home state of North Carolina.

While North Carolina generally collects suspension and expulsion data in a different way--it is much more focused on the number of missed days, rather than the percentage of students--I did find one report from the state Department of Education that stated that in 2006, approximately 10% of North Carolina students had short-term suspensions.  That statistic was for the entire school system, but let's just assume that percentage applies to middle and high schoolers, since that is what the Texas study covered.  But that is just short term discipline, and doesn't include long-term suspensions or expulsions.  I believe the Texas study said that 70% of its disciplinary actions were short-term, so if we apply the same statistics to North Carolina and round out the numbers (generously), then that would mean that about 15% of North Carolina students had been suspended or expelled in 2006.  

If that figure was accurate, then that would indicate that about four times the number of secondary students in Texas had been suspended or expelled, compared to those in North Carolina (in terms of percentages, not in actual numbers, since Texas is a much larger state).  Is Texas so wild that four times as many student misbehave?  Or is something else going on?

There was one other interesting data analysis that was included in the report.  The researchers actually divided the schools into three different categories, based on such demographics as family income level, percentage of immigrants or migrants, size of school, etc., and predicted whether disciplinary actions would be at a low, average, or high level.  But when they looked at the three categories, they found that about half reported the "expected" number, but a little less than a quarter had higher than expected percentages, while a bit more than a quarter had lower than expected numbers of disciplinary actions.  This was true regardless of expected level of school, size of school, type of school, or year of analysis.  And the good news was that those that had fewer percentages of students suspended or expelled certainly did no worse than those with average or even high numbers of disciplined students.

So the bottom line is, looking at the entire Texas secondary school system, is that suspending or expelling students is associated with dropping out or getting involved with the juvenile justice system.  But individual schools have a lot of discretion about whether or not they suspend or expel students.  Those who have a more lenient disciplinary system don't do any worse than the schools with higher percentages of disciplined students.  But there is obviously a lot of leeway between schools about who--and how many--are being suspended or expelled.

And either Texas is a LOT tougher on students than North Carolina, or they have a LOT more bad seeds--like four times as many.   Whether you think that is good or bad...well, like I said in paragraph 5 above, that probably depends more on your underlying assumptions about people than any statistics I can report.

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