ED’s causation confusion

The Education Department fired up civil rights advocates this week
with the release of new data showing that schools subject black and Latino
students to discipline at higher rates than their white peers. "The sad
fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than
non-minorities, even within the same school,”
lamented Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The statistics are indeed troubling—black students made up 18 percent of students in ED’s sample, but were 35 percent of students suspended once, and 39
percent of students expelled—but so is Duncan’s spin, which was echoed even more starkly by sundry civil rights
groups and commentators. What we know: Minority students are disciplined more
often than non-minorities. This may be, as Duncan implies, because schools
punish them unfairly and undeservedly, perhaps the result of institutional
racism, inexperienced teachers who struggle with classroom management, or
countless other explanations. But that doesn’t mean
U.S. schools are run by racists. It may also be because black and Latino
students commit infractions more often than white students and are therefore
disciplined at a higher rate. It may be because teachers and principals are
appropriately attentive to the rights of well-behaved youngsters who are eager
to learn without disruption. The truth is probably a mix of these and more—but we just cant tell from ED’s data. Rather than pretending to have the answers on this crucial issue, the
Education Department should redouble its efforts to find them.

Kimberly Hefling, “Report: Minority
students face harsher punishments
,” Associated Press, March
6, 2012

Tamar Lewin, “Black
Students Face More Harsh Discipline, Data Shows
,” New York Times, March
6, 2012

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