This year, states are casting off No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all schoolhouse shackles and experimenting with innovative ways to hold schools accountable. Some states are measuring school climate, access to advanced coursework, or socioemotional skills. But only California is planning to incentivize schools to put vulnerable students in harm’s way.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB, California plans on holding schools accountable for suspension rates. The higher the suspension rate, the lower the accountability score. The lower the score, the higher the risk of being labeled “failing” and targeted for state intervention.
If we learned one thing from NCLB, it’s that schools will game the system. Schools narrowed curriculum on tested subjects, taught to the test and sometimes outright cheated in what was called a “race to the bottom.”
Still, standardized tests are much harder to manipulate than suspension rates; all a school need do is suspend fewer misbehaving students. And under ESSA, 5 percent of schools must be labeled as failing. Schools near that mark will have the incentive to lower suspensions, with the knowledge that other schools have that incentive as well. So, while other states are using ESSA to reclaim a well-rounded education, California risks going from a race to the bottom to having the bottom drop out altogether, as struggling schools compete to lower disciplinary standards.
Over the last few years, many major urban districts have sharply curtailed student suspensions, and the results haven’t been pretty.
After Chicago made school leaders ask permission from the district office for long-term suspensions for nonviolent misbehavior, researchers at the University of Chicago documented that teachers reported more disruptive classrooms and students reported less peer respect.
After New York made principals ask permission for short-term suspensions for nonviolent misbehavior, I documented that, at half…