Federal Disciplinary Policies Lower Wisconsin Students’ Achievement, Study Finds

Published March 11, 2018

“In response to allegations of bias in suspension rates in schools along racial lines, the Obama Administration increased federal involvement in discipline policy across the country,” researchers Will Flanders and Natalie Goodnow write in “Collateral Damage: The Impact of Department of Education Policies on Wisconsin Schools,” released in January 2018. “Through a ‘Dear Colleague’ memo, federal incentives and legal threats, the [U.S.] Department of Education and Department of Justice worked in concert to push forward a system of positive behavioral support that was designed to reduced [sic] suspension rates, particularly among minority students.

“We gathered data on the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system from more than 2,000 schools throughout Wisconsin from 2009–2016,” the authors report. “We combined this with data on the number of suspensions and academic outcomes of most schools in the state over the same time frame.”

Among key findings in the report, the authors state, “Mathematics and Reading Proficiency are lower in schools that implement PBIS,” and “Negative proficiency effects of PBIS are stronger in suburban and rural schools.”

‘Some Students Feel Unsafe’

Goodnow, a research fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), says the policy mandates did not originate from evidence of need.

“Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education made a big push to reduce suspensions, in large part to combat accusations of racial discrimination in student suspensions,” Goodnow said. “Evidence has shown that African American students are suspended at higher rates than their peers. Around 2010, the Department of Education decided to focus on this issue, and they really ramped things up in 2014 with a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter. This letter told schools they had to dramatically reduce suspensions and replace them with softer discipline policies, like [PBIS]. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research on the effectiveness of these policies, but there has been some evidence that they make teachers feel unsupported, and they even, in fact, make some students feel unsafe, which is worrying.”

Calls for Local Control

Goodnow says control over disciplinary policy should be returned to the local level.

“There are kind of three different levels to work at,” Goodnow said. “We found math and reading proficiencies are lower at schools that implement softer discipline policies like PBIS, and that negative effects are greater in suburban and rural schools. Since releasing this report, we’ve heard from several teachers who have reached out to agree with our findings, reporting these softer discipline policies aren’t working in their classrooms. We think this is definitely an area of opportunity for the Trump administration and [U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos to rescind this Dear Colleague letter, but we think more also needs t be done at the state and local level.

“It’s important that states take a look at this and look into the impact of these policies in their schools and how they can actually support teachers and make them feel safer,” Goodnow said. “At the local level, schools should be aware of the collateral damage of this one-size-fits-all approach and determine whether PBIS is harming student climate and academic performance in their schools, and whether or not it’s a good fit for their students.”

Still Being Enforced

WILL Research Director Will Flanders says he’s surprised the Trump administration has not eliminated these policies.

“We heard through the grapevine that Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are going to reverse this Dear Colleague letter, but we’ve been kind of surprised it hasn’t happened as yet, and actually what we saw in Milwaukee last month that not only are they not rescinding it., but they’re actually continuing to enforce the threats that are contained in the letter on the school districts,” Flanders said. “The Milwaukee school district here settled with the Department of Justice, and were sort of forced to make changes to their disciplinary policy. So not only is it still in place, but it still to some extent is being enforced.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute. 


Will Flanders and Natalie Goodnow, “Collateral Damage: The Impact of Department of Education Policies on Wisconsin Schools,” Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, January 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/collateral-damage-the-impact-of-department-of-education-policies-on-wisconsin-schools