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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

To End Discipline Disparities Affecting Students of Color, Challenge the Status Quo

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 23, 2023 8 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What are strategies schools can implement to reduce and eliminate disparities in discipline affecting students of color?

This series serves as a sort of “Part Two” to a previous series guest-edited by Terri N. Watson, Ph.D. Those responses specifically focused on discipline disparities affecting Black girls.

Today, Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., and Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., contribute their reflections.

Strategies ‘Have Created the Current State of Disparity’

Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

In my opinion, strategies are exactly the things that have created the current state of disparity. Educators are expected to use strategies to get students to comply, to help students pass tests, and to make the schools’ scores look good. Very rarely in my experience did I witness collaboration among a group of educators who resisted compliance measures, behavior-modification strategies, and the standardization of schooling.

Nationally, educators are rewarded for following the scripts written by uncritical leaders who climb the ladder of success in their district by maintaining the status quo. Operating in schools without a critical consciousness harms students and the adults responsible for their care. Instead of strategies, I invite educators to shift their mental paradigms about what schooling is and should be.

Humanize teaching, learning, and being in schools. Address this pervasive issue with love. Love yourself enough to show compassion, find empathy, and build relationships to understand who you are as a teacher in relation to your students and colleagues. Also, learn who your students are, understand what they value, what their families believe, and what they dream about.

A student-centered approach is a humanizing approach. Resist the temptation to follow the compliance measures put in place to control students. Instead, question the root cause of behaviors that you are expected to curtail by inserting the compliance measures. Create space for children to “just be” in school. Build relationships and establish trust; students will tell you what bothers them.

Engage in critical conversations with the adults in your school(s). Hold each adult accountable for their role in adding to ongoing disparity impacting nonwhite students. Students matriculate out of high schools every four years, middle schools every three years, and elementary every five years. As educators, we know that the adults stay in the schools much longer than the students. If that is the case, who is most responsible for the data and the historical reality of the data in the school? Is it the students?

Review data from a historical context. Don’t just look at the last five years. Look at the history of discipline affecting nonwhite students in your schools, district, and state. You should know and be able to discuss how your students have fared in your school, district, and state over the last 30 years if you truly care about reducing and/or eliminating disparities in discipline policies and practices that affect students of color.

When discussing discipline with educators in schools, I draw from my learning and preparation from my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. From my studies, I know that most prisoners in the criminal-justice system can point to elementary school as the place where their life took a turn. As an elementary school teacher, I draw from firsthand knowledge of dismal data. If a child is not reading on grade level by the end of 2nd grade, they are more likely to drop out of school and end up in prison.

A crucial strategy schools can implement is to teach children that no matter their background, to read, write, and think for themselves like their lives depended on it. For students of color, their lives do depend on it.


‘Shift the Power Dynamics’

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined the Leadership Academy in 2015 with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, curriculum designer, and coach and currently serves as executive director, curriculum development and equity. She is the author of Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education: A Liberation Guide for Leaders of Color and can be found on Twitter @mriceboothe or by reading her newsletter:

The disparities in discipline affecting students of color are a systemic issue that requires systemic solutions. Studies tell us teachers have biases toward students of color, particularly Black students; however, these biases are sustained by a system. Challenging a system may seem like a large task, but there are specific steps teachers and leaders can take to make changes that create restorative rather than punitive environments for students of color:

  • Shift the power dynamics from teacher to student: The concept of cogenerative dialogues was reintroduced in Christopher Emdin’s book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too. Emdin connects the experience to a hip-hop cipher. The teacher and a small diverse, representative group of students engage in reflective conversation with the sole purpose of discussing their experiences within the classroom and walking away with an action plan for improvement. Regardless of how the teacher sets up the experience—it is a student-driven practice focused on shifting the power dynamic away from the teacher and into the hands of the students.
  • Leverage asset-based mindsets (while actively dismantling deficit-based mindsets): Once the power is in the hands of the student, it creates the conditions for them to drive their own learning. The premise of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation by Jamila Dugan and Shane Safir is to teach through an asset-based mindset. In order to meet that goal, the book provides strategies for empathy interviews, student-led conferences, and centering students’ voices. Engaging in a variety of conversations with students provides spaces for their strengths to be identified and become the basis of their learning versus their deficits.
  • Engage in short cycles of continuous improvement to find the right path forward for your context. There is not a single model that will eliminate discipline disparities because every school community and every student has different needs. That is why schools must engage in cycles of continuous improvement in order to try out new approaches and assess their impact: What’s working? What’s not? What needs to change? These experiments should be focused on systems, processes, and policies, not people. They also need to be time-bound, measurable, and do no harm to students or families. The Leadership Academy’s Portrait of a Culturally Responsive School provides reflection questions that school teams can use to generate potential experiments that focus on systemic change.

Moving toward an asset-based, student-centered approach to schooling where students are seen, heard, and valued are strategies that will bring joy to the classroom and eliminate the persistent disparities we see in disciplinary actions.


Thanks to Angela and Mary for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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