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Study finds restorative justice reduces student achievement

Violence increased in the Clark County School District after officials implementated a “restorative justice” discipline policy. Now a study of a similar program in Pittsburgh finds that it hurts student achievement.

For years, minority students, especially African-American males, have been overrepresented among suspended students. That’s not unique to Clark County. But there has never been any evidence suggesting widespread bias among Clark County teachers and principals. A 2013 district report, however, concluded that “bias” was the No. 1 cause of the disparity.

The Obama administration shared a similar belief. In a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, it said that the mere presence of racial disparities among suspended students was evidence of discrimination. In response, the CCSD and districts around the country turned to “restorative” justice, which favors behavioral interventions and non-punitive measures over suspensions.

Pittsburgh was one of those districts. Late last year, the Rand Corp. released a random-assignment study on the effects of the program. Researchers studied elementary and middle schools, finding that restorative justice reduced average suspension rates. Teachers also thought their school climates improved. That was the good news.

The bad news was that students reported that teachers become more lax in terms of managing their classrooms.

Perhaps more concerning was what researchers found it did to student achievement. Math scores decreased for students in grades 3-8. African-American and middle-school students saw a decline in scores on a combined assessment testing math and reading.

Pittsburgh’s program “had a negative impact on achievement for both African-American and white students at schools that were predominantly attended by African-American students, but not for either African-American or white students at schools that were not predominantly attended by African-American students,” researchers found.

This isn’t the first study to question the wisdom of relaxing discipline standards. Researchers with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined test scores after the Philadelphia school district implemented revised discipline standards. In December 2017, they found “that a policy change prohibiting the use of conduct suspensions has more negative consequences for peers in schools that serve more disruptive students.”

No one doubts that the proponents of restorative justice, like Superintendent Jesus Jara, are sincere in their desire to help troubled students. And there’s nothing wrong with helping kids get on the correct path. But they shouldn’t allow their compassion to blind them to the harm that a lax discipline system can do to everyone else.

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