We examine the effects of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s (CMSD) districtwide efforts to improve school safety, order, and conditions for learning. These approaches include implementing (1) a social and emotional learning program for elementary students (PATHS); (2) a planning model for students exhibiting academic or nonacademic needs (student support teams); and (3) a learner-centered approach to discipline (planning centers). We found that improved conditions for learning as well as student support interventions can foster safer, more productive schools. Suspension and expulsion rates decreased, but racial/ethnic disparities remained. Implementation quality also mediated outcomes. Transforming conditions contributing to exclusionary discipline often requires a sustained effort that should begin with an understanding that a culture of change, unlike “quick fixes” (e.g., metal detectors), requires time to engage stakeholders, cultivate their buy-in, and develop and implement an effective plan. We conclude with six recommendations addressing conditions for learning, student supports, and disciplinary disparities.

Key Take Away Points

  • Between 2008–09 and 2010–11 (and, in one case, 2010–12), analyses found five areas of growth such as improved conditions for learning for students in Grades 5 to 12; improved student attendance districtwide (which increased 1.5 percentage points); improved student behavior; and reduced use of school removal (out-of-school suspensions decreased districtwide by 58.8%.
  • Analyses of Office for Civil Rights data for the one year available (2009–10) determined that the relative risk of experiencing suspension or expulsion for male and female Black and Latino students with or without disabilities was higher than for their White peers.
  • Implementation quality, as reported by principals, was related to changes in behavior and conditions for learning. For example, disciplinary incidents decreased more in schools with “medium” or “high” implementation of PATHS (35.9%), student support teams (49.1%), and planning centers (51.4%).

Author Biography

David Osher is Vice President, AIR Institute Fellow, and Senior Advisor to the Health and Social Development (H&SD) Program at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). His research and practice interests include conditions for learning and development, school climate, effective schools, health promotion, disparities, and social emotional learning (SEL). Dr. Osher serves as Principal Investigator three major federal research and technical assistance (TA) centers and leads or has led numerous studies of global, national, statewide, local, and school initiatives. Dr. Osher, who received his A.B., A.M., and PH.D. from Columbia University, has authored or co-authored over 350 books, monographs, handbook chapters, articles, and reports.

Jeffrey Poirier, Ph.D., is a principal researcher leading AIR’s LGBTQ practice area in its H&SD Program. He addresses equity-related education and social issues, evaluates policy/program implementation, and provides TA and consultation. Dr. Poirier’s work touches on numerous areas such as cultural and linguistic competence, conditions for learning, health disparities, homelessness, juvenile justice, schools, and youth development. Much of his recent work has focused on identifying and addressing risk/protective factors and implementing policies and practices to improve the quality of care and outcomes for LGBTQ youth.

Roger Jarjoura, Ph.D., is a principal researcher in AIR’s H&SD Program. Previously he spent 19 years as a faculty member in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Dr. Jarjoura has over 16 years of experience in developing and evaluating mentoring programs and lead’s AIR’s juvenile justice practice area. For example, he designed and evaluated a randomized-control study that examined the impact of mentoring as a component of a juvenile reentry initiative.

Russell Brown, Ph.D., became Chief Accountability and Performance Management Officer for Baltimore County Public Schools in January 2014. Previously, he served as deputy chief of organizational accountability for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, researcher for the Reading First Program at the University of Akron, and was a published author and children’s mental health professional. From the University of Akron, Dr. Brown earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology.

Kimberly Kendziora, Ph.D., is a principal researcher working on SEL initiatives with the Learning Supports Network in the Education Program at AIR. Dr. Kendziora’s recent work has focused on school- and community-based initiatives to promote SEL and to support students who are not succeeding. She has directed or served as principal investigator on numerous evaluations, including for an eight-district demonstration project to establish SEL as an essential part of education.


The authors acknowledge the contributions of The Health and Social Development Program at The American Institutes For Research, The Cleveland Foundation, and the NOVO Foundation, all of whom supported some of the research included in this article.

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Daniel Losen. Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion. New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2015 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.