Parents and educators nationwide are growing increasingly concerned over reports that school discipline is applied to some groups of students more than others. Particularly worrisome are disciplinary practices that carry consequences for student learning. Suspending or expelling students removes them from their classrooms and causes them to lose instructional time. Such exclusionary practices adversely affect all students, but they are particularly harmful for English learners and other students who already face learning barriers.
English learners are a large and growing population across the Northwest region and the nation. In 2012–13 there were more than 4 million English learners, representing 9 percent of all students in U.S. public schools.
At Education Northwest, my colleagues and I support school and district programs for English learners in many ways, including identifying how principals can support their English learner students, summarizing research on best instructional practices, reviewing research on program models, assisting districts with developing their state-required plan for English learners, and providing tools that districts can use to check the coherence of their program for English learners.
I recently concluded a study that examined whether English learners in six Oregon districts were suspended or expelled more often, for different reasons, and for more instructional days than non-English learners. The study also examined whether English learners who were suspended or expelled achieved state standards for proficiency at the same rates as English learners who were not suspended or expelled.
The study found that:
- English learners and non-English learners were suspended or expelled at similar rates in elementary school. In middle school and high school, English learners were suspended or expelled at higher rates than non-English learners.
- English learners and non-English learners were suspended for a similar number of days in elementary school and middle school, but in high school English learners were suspended for almost a full day more than their non-English learner peers.
- Across all grades, aggression and insubordination/disruption were the most common reasons for the suspension and expulsion of both English learners and non-English learners.
- On average, English learners who were suspended or expelled had substantially lower achievement on state assessments in reading and math than English learner who were not suspended or expelled.
When schools suspend or expel some groups of students more often than others, questions arise about whether these penalties are imposed fairly and whether less punitive actions might better serve the interests of both schools and students. Policymakers, educators, and others concerned about these findings can consider a number of actions that could improve outcomes for English learners:
- Find alternatives to suspension and expulsion
- Examine policies and procedures for disciplining students and identify how they disadvantage English learners
- Monitor learning environments in schools and classrooms to ensure that they support all students
- Provide suspended or expelled English learners with appropriate learning activities when they are excluded from their classrooms
- Provide both academic and behavioral support to English learners who return to school after having been suspended or expelled
Other states and localities may wish to conduct similar comparisons of suspension and expulsion rates for English learners and non-English learners. If differences exist, they can examine the reason for each disciplinary action, paying close attention to whether English learners are disciplined more often than non-English learners for offenses that are identified through administrator discretion. When this is the case, it may signal a need for additional training for school staff members in understanding and responding to students’ behavior.