The United States has seen a steady increase in the policing and mass incarceration of its citizens in the last few decades. The increased surveillance and imprisonment, primarily of poor and minority populations, has been called by social scientists a “culture of control.” This culture of control harms not only the individual, but also their community, since highly policed communities have worse health outcomes and less economic stability than their less-policed counterparts. In their study of the effects of out-of-school suspension on academic achievement, Brea Perry and Edward Morris find that the cultural mindset of control—and its consequences— has now found its way into the halls of America’s schools.
Using three years of data from over 15,000 students in a public school district in Kentucky, Perry and Morris report that higher levels of “exclusionary discipline” (out-of-school suspension rates) lead to lower math and science test scores even among non-suspended students. The increased use of suspension as a punishment for individuals, that is, reduces academic achievement outcomes for the student body as a whole.
To test for reverse causation—the possibility that the effects are working in the opposite way—the authors looked at test scores over three years and used suspensions at the beginning of a given semester to predict test scores at the end of that semester. Their analyses confirm that increased suspension leads to lower test scores, rather than lower test scores leading to more suspensions.
Like the destabilizing consequences of mass incarceration for communities, exclusionary discipline in public schools ultimately undermines rather than supports academic performance. Schools with highly punitive environments create anxiety and distrust, heightening tensions for both students and teachers.
The authors emphasize that their findings are presented as an addition to existing critiques of the overuse of exclusion as a means of social control. They conclude, “Punishment is not a discrete response to certain transgressions, but a system of social order that produces wider meanings and consequences.”