Every day, the problem of discipline disparity plays out in schoolhouses across the country. Students of color—especially those who are black, Latino, or American Indian—are often punished more severely than their white classmates for the same infractions. National statistics show students of color are suspended or expelled two to five times more frequently than their white peers.
As the superintendent of the Beaverton, Ore., public schools, a suburban and rapidly diversifying school district just west of Portland, I was pleased to see the leaders of the U.S. departments of Education and Justice recently release guidance to address discrimination and disparities in school discipline. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in January, far too often school discipline “is not applied equitably or as effectively as it could be in our nation’s schools.” He added, “Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago.”
For years, our district of nearly 40,000 students has been working to reduce discriminatory discipline policies. Our efforts are extensive and have focused on three main areas: offering professional development for school leaders on culturally responsive practices, with an explicit emphasis on examining the impact of race and racism in student discipline; revising student-discipline policy and procedures to move from a punitive to restorative approach in addressing discipline; and developing and implementing a culturally responsive intervention-based system of student-behavior management.
Although Beaverton has the reputation of a high-performing district serving the well-to-do children of Nike and Intel employees, we have significant pockets of poverty, and the highest number of homeless students in the state. In 2000, 74 percent of the students in Beaverton identified as white; today, almost half (48 percent) of our students are nonwhite, and our Hispanic/Latino student population has increased by 130 percent since 2000. Fourteen years ago, 18 percent of Beaverton’s students were in poverty; today, 36 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. In some schools, as many as 90 percent of the students receive meal aid.
In the past, a lack of research has hampered our efforts to track whether students of color and from disadvantaged backgrounds face inequitable disciplinary consequences. We needed data about the extent of the problem, research on potential solutions, and metrics by which to judge our progress.
While we have a long way to go to achieve equity, I now have confidence that principals in my district are increasingly asking the right questions."
The situation changed last year, when we partnered with five other districts in the Portland area and REL Northwest (the regional education lab based in Portland) to create the Oregon Leadership Network Research Alliance. The alliance is using research and data to document and address disparities in student discipline, as well as in graduation rates. REL Northwest is one of 10 federally funded regional educational laboratories, which support more than 75 research alliances across the nation using reliable evidence to address local educational challenges.
Our research alliance began by trying to assemble a more accurate picture of the extent of the discipline-inequity problem. This isn’t as easy as it seems, since our six districts didn’t use the same measures and, often, did not have the staff or necessary skills to disaggregate the discipline data that were available.
To help, REL Northwest prepared three reports to increase each district’s knowledge of the issues. First, REL researchers reviewed almost 9,000 articles and prepared a literature summary of school and classroom factors associated with lower rates of discipline. This gave us some concrete strategies to consider adapting to our own context.
Next, REL analyzed the districts’ discipline data by race/ethnicity, special education status, and grade level to help each district identify the students who are most frequently and severely disciplined. For me, this clarified how big an issue discipline disparity is in Beaverton’s 51 schools. We learned, for instance, that, in February 2013, 7.4 percent of black middle school students in Beaverton had been suspended or expelled, compared with 2.7 percent of white students. In February 2014, the percentages were reduced to 6.5 percent of black students and 2.2 percent of white pupils, but there’s more work to do.
In the third report, REL reviewed individual districts’ discipline policies and procedures and described how each aligns or does not align with recommended best practices and Oregon school discipline policies. Leaders in Beaverton and the other districts were able to see where we had supportive and equitable policies in place and where gaps existed.
The district partners know that pinpointing the problem is not enough. We need help in thinking about potential solutions and communicating the urgency of the problem to school leaders, teachers, and community members. This partnership work has given us new ideas about how to move forward. This school year, Beaverton and the other Oregon Leadership Network districts are identifying strategies to enact solutions that will work for our schools and students. Alliance members are also identifying common measures that schools might use to pinpoint their needs and track progress.
Are we making progress? That’s the final contribution that evidence can make to continuous improvement. While we have a long way to go to achieve equity, I now have confidence that principals in my district are increasingly asking the right questions. They are also receiving high-quality data to provide accurate answers about what to do, and how well their actions are affecting results. The support of REL Northwest has been a critical factor in leveraging our progress.
All of the partners in the alliance have benefited greatly from the reciprocal learning that happens when researchers and practitioners work together, and the regional educational laboratory has provided a critical link between evidence and effective action. I am confident that our districts will make strides to eliminate discriminatory and disparate discipline practices in our schools.
In Beaverton, we have four “pillars of learning” that describe our commitments to students and our community and represent what we as a district want to be known for. One of those pillars reads, “We embrace equity.”
The lives of our students are in our hands, and it is a moral imperative that we establish discipline practices and policies that reflect our pillars and honor our students. By basing policy changes in research, we feel we are doing just that.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Using Evidence to Recalibrate Discipline Policies