When Campbell’s Law Collides With School Suspension Data

For those who aren’t familiar with Campbell’s Law:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Did someone say corrupt? Why, yes (boldface mine):

D.C. Public Schools has reported a dramatic decline in suspensions at a time when school systems around the country have been under pressure to take a less punitive approach to discipline. But a Washington Post analysis shows that at least seven of the city’s 18 high schools have kicked students out of school for misbehaving without calling it a suspension and in some cases even marked them present.

In the past two years, at least seven high schools sent daily messages to staff listing students who had misbehaved and were not permitted to enter the building, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. But attendance records show that only a fraction of those cases were officially recorded as suspensions.

While some students barred from school were marked as present, others were marked as attending an “in-school activity” or absent without an excuse. In at least one case, a suspended student was wrongly marked “unexcused absent” so many times that she was summoned to truancy court, according to her lawyer.

DCPS says suspensions drop­ped from 11,078 in 2013-2014 to 6,695 in 2015-2016 — a 40 percent reduction….

But according to their corresponding attendance records, most suspensions were not reported. For example, the emails from the seven schools show that in January 2016, students spent a total of 406 days in suspension. Only 15 percent of those were officially recorded, the data shows

Her daughter was suspended at least 12 times in the 2016-2017 school year, but only one suspension was officially recorded, according to a complaint that Boyd’s lawyer filed with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Boyd’s daughter receives special-education services, and under federal law, her suspensions are supposed to be reviewed to determine whether her misbehavior was related to her disability. In her pending complaint, Boyd alleges that those reviews did not occur when her daughter was unofficially suspended.

When metrics are used, not to improve service, but to evaluate personnel, there are incentives to game the system. This is self-evident. And all the pieties about behaving better won’t change that. Worse, when the figures are distorted, the people who are supposed to be served are, instead, failed.

We need to do better.

Update: The D.C. City Council is now investigating this.

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