Discipline and fairness are key aspects of a school’s culture.
A growing body of research shows that supportive, positive systems of discipline can radically improve social, emotional, and academic outcomes for students. Yet recent federal civil rights data suggest that discipline policies and protocols in U.S. schools are inconsistently administered and experienced across schools and populations.
As a national nonprofit committed to elevating student and stakeholder voices on critical issues in education, we wanted to know: what do students, families, and staff think about discipline and fairness at their school? To answer this question, we analyzed survey data collected between fall 2016 and the end of 2018. We examined perceptions of discipline across over 104,000 secondary students, families, and school staff members and uncovered a number of insights.
Why explore discipline across students, families, and staff?
Student, family, and staff members’ experiences with discipline and fairness each play an important role in a school’s overall climate. We know that student perceptions are linked with outcomes, and we know that parent and guardian perceptions of school matter in school choice and enrollment, as well as a family’s connection to and investment in to school’s culture. Likewise, staff buy-in is a critical component in maintaining the positive systems of discipline that contribute to safe and welcoming learning environments.
Overall, students feel less positively about discipline than do families or staff.
Discipline is a key aspect of culture and student success. Yet for educators, building and maintaining effective systems of discipline can feel like a balancing act between recognizing students’ unique circumstances and creating a safe and welcoming campus for everyone.
When we look at how each group of stakeholders — students, families, and staff — rate the fairness of discipline at school, we see that students report the least positive perceptions. Less than half of students – 40 percent – feel discipline at their school is fair.
Of the three groups, families feel most positively. Fifty-nine percent of parents and guardians feel that discipline at school is fair. Half of staff respondents – 50 percent – say the same.
“Discipline at my school is fair.”
Not all of the students in the school receive the fairness and respectful discipline. Students are not treated with the discipline that they should be treated with because rules, policies, and procedures that should be followed are not.
Sometimes it seems as though discipline policies are implemented but not followed through with. This makes it confusing for staff to know what to enforce, and how to do it.
Stakeholders at high poverty schools have similar experiences with discipline as do those at other schools.
Poverty has an enormous impact on the physical and mental health and well-being of students, and we were curious to understand the relationship between a school’s poverty level and stakeholders’ experiences with discipline. We compared high poverty schools — schools in which at least 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch — with schools in which fewer than 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
We did not find a meaningful difference in stakeholders’ perceptions across these two groups of schools. Thirty-nine percent of students attending high poverty schools rate school discipline positively, compared to 40 percent of students at other schools. Similarly, families and staff members of high poverty schools rate the fairness of school discipline only a few percentage points differently than those at other schools. The differences between student, family, and staff perceptions of discipline at schools that are high poverty versus schools that are not high poverty are not statistically significant.
High school students and families feel less positively about discipline than do middle school students or families.
Middle school students rate school discipline ten percentage points more positively than do high school students. Similarly, 63 percent of middle school families rate the fairness of discipline positively while only 55 percent of high school family members say the same. However, there is no significant difference in the eyes of middle school versus high school staff members when it comes to how they perceive the fairness of discipline at their schools.
Discipline needs to be rethought and monitored more carefully. It seems that many students receive a slap on the wrist, while other students are dealt with more harshly for minor offenses. More counseling and guidance could be used for more minor infractions to guide students in the right direction.
Students, families, and staff of different races and ethnicities have different experiences with discipline and fairness.
There is not one racial or ethnic group that has a consistently more or less positive experiences with school discipline across all stakeholders.
However, our analysis reveals several differences within each stakeholder group. A closer look shows that Asian students rate discipline at their school more positively than do other racial or ethnic groups, while multiracial students rate discipline at their school less positively. (African American or Black students’ ratings are a few percentage points lower than other students’ ratings, but the difference observed in our sample was not statistically meaningful.)
Hispanic and Asian parents and guardians also rate school discipline somewhat more positively than other racial or ethnic groups, while white family members and those who preferred not to identify their race or ethnicity rate less positively. School staff who preferred not to say their race or ethnicity also feel less positively about school discipline.
Measuring School Discipline and Fairness
Discipline policies influence a school’s climate and culture, and when designed and implemented well, help a school run smoothly, support teachers, and set up equitable conditions of learning. Since student perceptions are leading indicators, anonymous and real-time feedback about perceptions of discipline today can help educators adjust now to create a better tomorrow. When managed poorly, however, school discipline policies and practices can have serious long and short term effects not only on student learning, but also on students’ lives inside and outside school, including contributing to the school to prison pipeline.
Triangulating perceptions and experiences of school discipline across stakeholder groups can help educators discover what aspects of discipline practices and policies are truly working, and for whom. Positive discipline practices help students, families, and staff to develop mutually respectful relationships, reduce disciplinary action, and improve classroom environment.
Closing the Feedback Loop: Sample Discussion Questions
- Do you think these findings speak to the experiences of students, families, or staff at your school? Which data points seem
most reflective of your school’s culture?
- How do you think students’ perception of culture on your campus might be similar to or different from these findings?
- What sources inform your hypothesis?
- When and how will you engage students in reflecting on this data with school leadership teams? What questions do you
have after reflecting on this data?
- When you compare the experiences of discipline across stakeholder groups at your school, what do you notice? Do you see
any differences in perceptions of discipline across racial or ethnic groups? Which data points seem most relevant?
- What is one thing your school could try this year to improve school discipline?
- What is one thing your school could try this year to improve school discipline?
- In your opinion, what does positive behavior and positive decision making look like in school? Can you share an example
that you’ve seen at your school of someone promoting positive practices of discipline?
- What strategies and resources are available if you see a student affected by unfair discipline policies or practices?
DOWNLOAD THE FULL REPORT
To help educators, parents, education funders, and students grapple with the landscape of school discipline in U.S. schools, we went straight to the source for more insight. We asked over 104,000 students, family members, and staff members about their experiences with discipline between fall of 2016 and the end of 2018. Download the full report to:
- Understand how student, family, and staff experiences with discipline are similar or different along themes like race, family income, a school’s poverty level, and a school’s grade range
- Discover resources to take action
- Close the feedback loop with suggested discussion questions for principals, teachers, and professional learning communities as well as for teachers and principals in conversation with students