New study on student discipline: black kids take it on the chin

The wonderful hubris of the new National Education Policy Center study on Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice, is not the assertion that discipline data should be an essential metric in gauging a school's success ? which it should ? but that current disciplinary policies and practices are racist. [pullquote]Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?[/pullquote]

The author of the report, Daniel Losen of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, is more diplomatic than that, but he does suggest that many current discipline policies may be ?unlawful? because of their ?disparate impact? on African Americans and the disabled.? And I would have to agree.

In our post-Columbine, zero-tolerance, character-first education world, Losen proposes a radical thesis (that the race of the student counts more than his or her behavior) and mounts a remarkably persuasive argument for doubting that current mainstream beliefs ? and the policy and practices that they have spawned ? about disciplining our students are sustainable. ?In fact, Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?

If that sounds radical, even counterintuitive, read the study.? Among the findings reported here are these:

  • ?School suspensions nationwide have risen steadily since the early 1970s, and racial disparities have grown considerably as well.?
  • ?In 2006, at least one district in each of 46 states imposed long-term suspensions or expulsions on students with disabilities significantly more often than on nondisabled students." [pullquote]Children who are suspended are often from a population that is the least likely to have supervision at home.[/pullquote]

Racial and physical biases aside, the suspension crackdown (my word), according to Losen, doesn't seem to have improved our educational outcomes:

  • [I]f suspending large numbers of disruptive students helped improve instruction and the learning environment, better academic results should be expected. But this does not seem to happen."
  • ?There is little reason to believe that removing a child from a school to spend more time in?a dysfunctional [home] setting will improve behavior.?
  • Quoting from a study by the Academy of American Pediatrics' Committee on School Health, ?Children who are suspended are often from a population that is the least likely to have supervision at home?. Children with single parents are between 2 and 4 times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school?.?
  • Quoting from one of his earlier reports, for the Poverty Law Center (see my report last September), ?Longitudinal studies have shown that students suspended in sixth grade are more likely to receive office referrals or suspensions by eighth grade, prompting some researchers to conclude that suspension may act more as a reinforcer than a punisher for inappropriate behavior?.?
  • [R]esearch on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.[pullquote]Often, student misbehavior is attributed exclusively to students themselves, but researchers know the same student can behave very differently in different classrooms. Disruptions tend to increase or decrease with the skill of the teacher in providing engaging instruction and in managing the classroom[/pullquote]

While many of these findings may seem obvious, the key insight here is this:

?Often, student misbehavior is attributed exclusively to students themselves, but researchers know the same student can behave very differently in different classrooms. Disruptions tend to increase or decrease with the skill of the teacher in providing engaging instruction and in managing the classroom?areas many teachers say they would like help improving.?

Teachers matter, not just in academic outcomes but in disciplinary ones as well (and Losen offers alternatives to the current ?exclusion? practices, which kick kids out of school).? But the question that I have always asked about a ?bad? student is the one that Losen suggests ? is he or she bad in every class? More often than not, the answer is No -- which suggests, as the question is meant to, that the problem is not the kid but the teacher. Indeed, teachers make a difference. And they make a terrible difference when the rules ? Codes of Conduct that are dozens of pages long and prohibit every conceivable indiscretion, from wearing flip-flops to talking back to an adult ? are both intensely specific and airily vague. You can drive a hundred expulsion trucks through these discipline tunnels ? or none at all, depending on?. What?? The color of your skin?

I have seen the terrible consequences of overt, covert, and implicit racism in my small district over many years.? It is not simply the numbers, though they certainly represent something of a signal of trouble: ?30% of the kids are African American and 99% of the teachers and administrators are white. ?And it has never seemed coincidental ? as Losen's report points out ? that the academic performance numbers correspond so well with the suspension numbers: blacks were about twice as likely as whites to fail as they were to get kicked out of school. As the American Pediatrics' report quoted by Losen said,

[C]hildren most likely to be suspended or expelled are those most in need of adult supervision and professional help.

We kick out the kids least likely to benefit from the punishment. (I once proposed to our school board that we make bad kids stay in school longer (and do some blackboard writing!) and was laughed at.)

A number of us did form a group, called Parents in Partnership, to represent students when they were suspended, and it was remarkable how often we were defending kids whose main infraction was haplessness rather than badness.? And when pressed to produce the necessary paperwork ?(per the Code of Conduct) to justify the punishment meted out, more often than not the case presented by administrators against the poor kid ? mostly poor and mostly black ? fell apart.? (They followed few of the procedures called for by the Code of Conduct.) I recall one particularly egregious example of the problem, when the school principal intervened in a cafeteria food fight and, on his way out, spotted a young black boy, a known troublemaker,? standing by the exit, his hands raised in innocence. ??See, Mr. G., I didn't do anything,? he said proudly.? ?Come with me,? said Mr. G. (this, by Mr. G's own account).? ?But I didn't do anything,? the boy protested.? Long story short, the kid was suspended for insubordination.

If I hadn't seen such racist behavior on the part of adults ? and there is no other explanation for it ? I would not have believed it.? And I would not have believed that the disproportionate number of disciplinary actions ? from ?referrals? to suspensions ? against blacks was caused by the kids' color.? But it was.? Of course, it is more complicated than that, but that is what makes the problem so insidious and why the ?disparate impact? standard explained by Losen is appropriate in weighing a school's culpability for inequitable enforcement of discipline standards.? Writes Losen, quoting from a 2010 book he co-authored,

Under the `disparate impact' theory, a method of discipline that is racially neutral on its face but has a discriminatory effect may be found unlawful absent sufficient justification such as educational necessity. Even if a school's action is found to be justified, it still may be unlawful if equally effective, less discriminatory alternatives are available.

There may be some justifiable controversy here about the significance of ?uneven educational outcomes? as a perfect measure of unfair disciplinary practices, but there should be no doubt that adults have to take charge of their schools ? which means taking responsibility for the behavioral atmosphere within them.? The best evidence here, supporting Losen and his findings, comes from Martin Luther King himself, who was asked in 1959 what he thought of the historic 1954 Brown versus Board of Education ruling that integrated schools:

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel. I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual -- the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

As long as white people are writing the rules, interpreting them, and enforcing them, African Americans have something to worry about ? and it's not segregation.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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