Social science fields, education included, have often relied on beliefs, and personal and/or political values to govern policymaking and practice decisions because the craft of working with people is intricate and nuanced. That is what makes our research center so interesting and challenging; our center is driven by data and research but operates in a world of social issues that cannot often be controlled. We have to continually balance two beliefs: that data can help to inform better practice, and that the human factor involved in these issues matters. In many circles, these are two ideas that are often pinned against one another.
As the field of education continues to steadily emphasize research, data, and evidence-based practices it is important to address the underlying assumption, “Does research use actually improve practice?” Moving beyond instinct or personal opinions, let’s use a case study to evaluate the question. Breaking Schools’ Rules was a study done in 2011 that examined school discipline as related to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement among one million Texas students. The study found the following: nearly six in ten public school students were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and eighth grade school years, African-American students and those with educational disabilities were disproportionately more likely to be removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons, students who were suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation had a significantly higher likelihood of being in contact with the juvenile justice system, and suspension and expulsion rates varied significantly among schools (Fabelo et al., 2011). The discipline policies negatively impacted students’ lives far beyond the classroom, and disproportionality impacted groups of students who historically have faced discrimination: students of color and students with disabilities. This study helped to expose a trend, provide evidence in support of necessary policies, and start a national discourse on restorative justice.
These alarming findings ushered in a number of initiatives by federal agencies and private entities. The U.S. Department of Education and U.D. Department of Justice launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative targeted at building consensus for action among a variety of stakeholders, investing in research and data collection needed to inform programs and policies, ensuring school policies align with the nation’s civil rights laws, and promoting knowledge around evidence-based practices on the topic (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
Breaking Schools’ Rules is an example of how research can help us all to recognize and address a problem that may otherwise go unnoticed. Yet, as in any good partnership, research and data are nothing without skilled, caring, and talented education professionals that can integrate them into policy and practice in ways that support student learning. It is essential to blend the knowledge from research with educators’ abilities to connect with and engage their students in the learning process. Research shouldn’t prescribe good practice, it should inspire it! It is a way to support our educators to continue the quality work they are engaged in every day.
Fabelo, T., Thompson, M.D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
U.S. Department of Education (2011). Secretary Duncan, Attorney General Holder announce effort to respond to school-to-prison pipeline by supporting good discipline practices. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/secretary-duncan-attorney-general-holder-announce-effort-respond-school-prison-p