Restorative practices may not be the solution, but neither are suspensions

Proponents of restorative justice suffered a blow recently with the late 2018 release of a much anticipated RAND study of restorative practices in Pittsburgh schools. The study’s results showed restorative practices were not as effective as many hoped – or as they are sometimes portrayed by proponents and in the media .

Unlike traditional disciplinary approaches, such as suspension, which remove students from school, restorative practices focus on repairing harm done by getting victims and perpetrators together to talk.

The idea is to rebuild and restore a sense of dignity and community.

As an educational researcher who studies school discipline, I think it would be misguided to use the study as a reason to go back to the old way of doing things, as is currently under debate in some locales.

First, let’s look at what the study found.

Mixed results

On the positive side, the study found evidence that teachers in schools using restorative practices reported better classroom management and school climate. Restorative practices led to an almost 15 percent decline in days lost to suspension overall. The intervention decreased the days lost to suspension for both black students and students from lower income households. However, it had no significant impact on white students or students from more affluent households. Furthermore, impacts were particularly large in elementary schools – there, the intervention led to an over 50 percent decline in days lost to suspension.

At the same time, however, there were a number of negative outcomes. Restorative practices did not lead to lower rates of suspension in middle schools. Nor did it result in declines in suspensions for violence or arrests. Furthermore, there were negative, statistically significant impacts on standardized achievement test scores in middle schools and for black students.

And, contrary to how teachers saw restorative practices, students reported worse classroom management and relationships.

In my opinion, it’s fair to say the findings were mixed at best.

Strong design, different takes on results

While the new study is not the first to examine restorative practices, it is notable for the strength of its research design. Schools were randomly assigned to use the Institute for Restorative Practices’ SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change program or not. Since randomized controlled trials are considered the “gold-standard” of evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention, the RAND study theoretically provides more credible estimates of the true effect of the program separate from other school policies and practices.