When You Don’t Agree with the Research

When You Don’t Agree with the Research

As a practitioner and principal of Sussex Central High School (SCHS) in Georgetown, Delaware, identifying and implementing research-based best practices and making data-based decisions are among the most important roles I have as a school leader.

But what is a school leader to do when he or she doesn’t agree with the research or has serious questions with respect to data?  Part of my job is to think critically about the information available.  Do the threats to validity outweigh the results?  Are the findings generalizable to my school and my community?

In my time as a discipline dean and, subsequently, as assistant principal, student discipline was one of my primary responsibilities from 2009-2014.  In the decade prior to taking on these roles, I had been a teacher and athletic director at SCHS as well.  Being part of the same school system and the same community gives a school leader perspective and a sense of history in the context of school culture.  So a leader’s “gut feelings” and experience may sometimes be incongruent with much of the generally recognized and accepted research, as well as particular data sets used to drive decision making.  So there are times when I go to the research or data but make a decision that isn’t entirely consistent with it.  Here’s an example.

Student misbehavior is considered a significant educational problem as it constitutes a distraction from the learning environment for students.  Additionally, students who are removed from the classroom environment have lower achievement as compared to their counterparts who remain.  Out-of-school suspension and expulsion are viewed negatively, in general, as cited in most contemporary literature (Christle, 2004, Michail, 2011, & Sander, 2010).  The problem with much of the research is that findings repeatedly show correlations that suspended and expelled students have lower achievement, but many researchers and practitioners misidentify the problem of practice with respect to the types of consequences in place, rather than the students’ misbehavior.  Another factor that is often overlooked is that correlation does not equate to causation, but researchers and practitioners often make this false inference.  There are definite downsides to exclusionary practices, which is clear in the research, but rather than focus only on adjusting consequences, I believed we needed to focus on strategies to reduce the misbehaviors that result in exclusionary practices.

At Sussex Central High School, a variety of practices have been implemented in the past decade to address student misbehavior, including exclusionary practices such as out of school suspension.  But for years we had had no improvement in referral rates.  Should schools like SCHS continue to utilize suspension and alternative placements for students who violate the Code of Conduct repeatedly, for serious offenses, or for violations of the law?  Since suspensions are correlated with lower student achievement (Christle, 2004), and the use of exclusionary practices is not supported by most researchers (Michail, 2011), the answer should likely be no. But what I knew from experience was that SCHS also needed to work on consistency in enforcement of expectations as a response to misbehavior coupled with a multitude of strategies to build strong, positive relationships and provide organizational structure to prevent misbehaviors.  So we continued the practice of out of school suspensions and became more consistent in enforcing the code of conduct.  These practices have helped to maintain a positive environment, and research has shown that removing students who misbehave (from the classroom or even from the school) has been shown to improve the behavior of students who remain because peers have been found to influence one another’s behaviors (Giancola, 2000).

At the same time, SCHS administration implemented many preventative measures to build positive relationships between students, staff, and parents, as well as changes in the organizational structure of the school (i.e. bell schedules, lunch schedules, academic schedules, etc.).  Moreover, teams of teachers, school counselors, administrators, and others began to meet weekly to discuss students who were “at risk” with respect to academic achievement, attendance, and/or behavior.  These meetings resulted in preventative actions, accommodations, and supports to intervene before students’ grades, attendance or behavior deteriorated into failure, denial of credit due to chronic absenteeism, or suspension for violating the Code of Conduct.

So at SCHS we took time to understand the research but also our own school, processes, and students.  What happened? Data displayed below in Table 1 illustrate that, in the time period from the 2010-2011 school year to the 2013-2014 school year, student misbehaviors resulting in office discipline referrals dropped precipitously.

Table 1 – Sussex Central High School Discipline Referrals
Total Office Referrals Total Students Receiving Referrals School Year
1652 531 2010/2011
935 345 2011/2012
860 362 2012/2013
535 239 2013/2014

At Sussex Central High School, a continued reduction of student discipline referrals has been accompanied by continued consistent use of out-of-school suspension (OSS) and alternative placements.  This is counter to most contemporary research, as cited above.  However, Sussex Central’s data indicated that under these conditions, fewer students received office discipline referrals and fewer were suspended, alternatively placed, or expelled annually between the 2010-2011 school year and the 2013-2014 school year; falling to the fewest number of student discipline referrals than any other year in the past decade.  My point is not to suggest that increased use of exclusionary measures in response to student misbehavior causes less misbehavior, as a variety of positive, preventative measures were also in use and we can’t attribute causality here.

Rather, my point is that school leaders, like myself, need to understand and use research; I spent a good deal of time learning about disciplinary practices and their consequences for students so that I could make an informed decision.  But at the same time, leaders shouldn’t always let research drive decision making without also engaging one’s experience, intuition and instincts; at SCHS, blending research, data, and leaders’ knowledge and experience resulted in significant schoolwide improvement.




Works Cited

Christle, C., Jolivette, K., & Nelson, C. M. (2004, November). School characteristics related to the use of suspension. Education & Treatment of Children, 27(4), 509.

Giancola, S. P. (2000). Adolescent behavior problems: peer pressure “is” all it is cracked up to be. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Michail, S. (2011). Understanding school responses to students’ challenging behaviour: A review of literature. Improving Schools, 14(2), 156-171.

Sander, J. B., Sharkey, J. D., Olivarri, R., Tanigawa, D. A., & Mauseth, T. (2010). A qualitative study of juvenile offenders, student engagement, and interpersonal relationships: Implications for research directions and preventionist approaches. Journal of Educational & Psychological Consultation, 20(4), 288-315.

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