Avoid Simple Solutions and Quick Fixes: Improving Conditions for Learning

David M. Osher, Jeffrey M. Poirier, G. Roger Jarjoura, and Kimberly Kendziora, AIR
Russell Brown,

Urban schools are often viewed as disorderly and unsafe, and often have poor conditions for learning that affect student attendance, behavior, achievement, and safety.

This paper examines efforts from 2008 to 2012 by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) – with the assistance of the American Institutes for Research – to improve safety, order, and the conditions for learning in its schools. These conditions include:

  • the experience of emotional and physical safety;
  • connectedness to and support from caring adults and peers; 
  • peer social and emotional competence; and
  • academic engagement and challenge.

CMSD’s districtwide approach included:

  • helping students in elementary grades to understand, regulate, and express emotions;
  • identifying and assisting students who exhibit early problem behavior; and
  • replacing punitive in-school suspensions with discipline that focuses on student needs and helps students learn self-discipline.

Findings included improved conditions for learning, increased student attendance, decreased disruptive behavior, and reduced use of out-of-school suspensions.

Transforming the conditions contributing to exclusionary discipline requires a sustained effort. Unlike “quick fixes” like metal detectors, a culture of change requires an extended period of time to engage stakeholders, cultivate their buy-in, and develop and implement an effective plan.

The paper concludes with six recommendations to improve conditions for learning, provide effective student support, and reduce discipline-related disparities:

  • Conduct external audits of conditions for learning and disparities in school discipline and safety.
  • Use conditions for learning data to inform improvement efforts.
  • Utilize three-tiered approaches to prevent and address mental health challenges, including those related to trauma.
  • Implement evidence-based social and emotional learning programming.
  • Broaden incentives for investing in student support.
  • Improve implementation quality of interventions and greater cultural competence of school staff.
David Osher
Vice President and Institute Fellow