cause and effect

Do suspensions lead to higher dropout rates and other academic problems? In New York City, the answer could be yes

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protested the city's suspension policy.

Reams of research show that students who are suspended are also more likely to drop out, get sucked into the juvenile justice system, and face a slew of other academic challenges.

But a crucial question has largely gone unanswered: Do suspensions themselves cause those negative outcomes, or are the factors that led to the suspension in the first place the real culprit — or some combination of both?

New research focusing on New York City offers fresh evidence to help answer that question. The paper, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Education, suggests that suspensions really do contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

The findings add new evidence to a heated debate playing out in New York and across the country about how suspensions affect students, and whether dramatically reducing them could boost outcomes for students of color and those with disabilities, groups that are disproportionately suspended.

Using data from roughly 70,000 New York City high school students collected between 2005 and 2011, Columbia University researchers Liz Chu and Doug Ready attempted to isolate the effects of suspensions by comparing students’ academic records during a semester in which they were suspended with a different semester in which the same students were not suspended.

By comparing students with themselves across different semesters — the difference being whether they were suspended — the paper tries to zero in on the suspension’s effect, minimizing factors like a student’s home life that can be difficult to measure and complicate comparisons between different students.

In the short term, suspensions seemed to have modest, but notable, consequences. They contributed to a 3 percentage point reduction in passing math classes and 4 percent for English classes. A suspension was also linked to a 2 percentage point increase in the likelihood of dropping out the following semester, and an additional absence from school.

Those results were consistent for more serious types of suspensions, with the exception that students tended to be absent for even more days (despite being removed from their classrooms, students facing serious “superintendent” suspensions are still typically expected to show up for classes in an alternative setting).

The authors acknowledge their findings don’t prove that suspensions are the root cause of negative consequences such as declines in academic performance. The methodology can’t definitively rule out that outside factors — such as a death in the family — caused a student to perform worse academically and also triggered behavior problems that led to the suspension.

“These methods are eliminating a lot of that bias, but they’re still not likely eliminating all of it,” said Kaitlin Anderson a researcher at Michigan State University who has studied school discipline and reviewed the paper at Chalkbeat’s request. “I think it’s definitely a more novel approach than most of [the research] out there.”

Anderson’s own research focusing on students in Arkansas found suspensions did not seem to have a negative effect on test scores in the year following a suspension.

In New York City, the authors saw more dramatic long-term effects, noting that students were significantly less likely to pass Regents exams required for graduation, and were less likely to graduate on time. However, those findings are based on a different statistical method that is less able to tease out cause and effect, and which compares students with other peers at the same high school.

The paper could bolster the arguments of those who favor reforming school districts’ discipline codes to reduce suspensions. But because the findings are based on data that was collected years before New York City changed its school discipline policies to reduce suspensions, the paper doesn’t offer any direct evidence about how those efforts are playing out. Critics argue that the new discipline policies have led to less orderly classrooms, something the study doesn’t examine.  

Still, Chu, one of the paper’s authors, argues that the new research offers some evidence that alternatives to suspensions are worth pursuing.

“If you take this along the other rich detail that exists about the harmful effects of suspension,” she said, “it makes it even more difficult for a critic who thinks suspensions aren’t that bad for students to stand in that position.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.