School Climate & Safety Opinion

Why Do School Discipline Disparities Exist? What the Evidence Can and Can’t Tell Us

By Douglas N. Harris — May 03, 2018 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans). This post is by Nathan Barrett, ERA-New Orleans’ Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow, and it is a follow up to his Monday post about whether and how research can inform the debate around school discipline disparities. His research focuses on K-12 education including student equity, school reform, and teachers.

In a recent post, I discussed the ongoing debate regarding racial disparities in student discipline and the federal guidance aimed at reducing disparities. Central to that debate is how different sides come to different conclusions when interpreting the same evidence. This is largely because we do not have accurate data on students’ true behaviors. Therefore, it becomes a debate about whether disparities exist because students of different races are behaving differently in schools or are being treated differently by schools, with each side making very different policy recommendations. However, after reviewing much of the evidence, I suggest the issue is more nuanced than either side would readily admit. Solving the problem of racial disparities in student discipline is more complex than simply deciding whether to rescind federal guidance.

To my knowledge, all available evidence regarding race and discipline is descriptive, either involving summaries of large data sets or comprised of case studies. While descriptive research is often very useful, it is designed to answer questions like, “What, if any, discipline disparities exist?” To that end, the evidence is clear that disparities exist, a point both sides acknowledge. It is natural for many to try and extend descriptive evidence to answer questions like, “Why do disparities exist?,” or “What do these disparities mean?,” but this can lead to different interpretations and conclusions about what must be done. This is particularly true if one allows their own biases to affect the evidence they choose to review and the ways in which they interpret evidence. While it is impossible to review all the relevant studies in this brief post, I will discuss several key areas of research that, when taken together, provide a more comprehensive look at a difficult subject.

Understanding how adults interpret behavior or assign punishments when race is a factor is an important precursor to understanding racial disparities in discipline. Stating that adults are not subject to allowing biases, either implicit or explicit, to affect the ways in which they interpret student behaviors or assign punishments ignores a significant amount of scholarly evidence. One study in particular reveals the existence of such bias. While this study is most widely known for tracking teachers’ eye movements--teachers tended to focus more on black students, particularly on black boys--it also reveals that teachers’ expectations for student behavior are influenced by their implicit biases, with white teachers having lower expectations for black students’ behavior. A recent study of data from Louisiana that I coauthored with several colleagues compared the length of suspensions given to black and white students who got into fights with each other. Even controlling for these students’ discipline histories, we found that black students received longer suspensions than the white students with whom they fought. The differences were small in magnitude but consistent across our analyses and statistically significant.

Understanding the role of factors outside of school is also an important precursor to understanding the potential origins of racial disparities in school discipline. It is difficult to accept that disparities in students’ life circumstances would not manifest into disparate behavior in schools. Furthermore, schools are often held responsible for disparities in behavior that may exist due to differences in students’ life circumstances, which may potentially limit the resources allocated to help address these disparities by not involving other agencies. We also know that there are large racial disparities in juvenile crime rates. While one could argue that the same mechanisms that create disparities in schools do so in the criminal justice system, it is hard to believe such mechanisms would account for all disparities across two systems. We also know from self-reported evidence that black-students are more than twice as likely to get into a fight than white students.

While racial disparities in discipline are a widely debated topic, I am concerned that we are missing a larger issue that, if addressed properly, would likely eliminate these disparities. Is exclusionary discipline the answer to correcting student behavior and making schools safe? Evidence would suggest that it’s not, as most written infractions are for non-violent behaviors. It seems inconsistent to say that differences in life circumstances are a significant factor in discipline disparities, but then use exclusionary discipline to send these students right back to the circumstances that lead them to misbehave disproportionately. Furthermore, students are often suspended multiple times, which suggests that such punishments are not addressing the root causes of misbehavior. If exclusionary discipline truly worked at correcting student behavior, wouldn’t we see disparities diminish over time since black students disproportionately receive such discipline? Though the research is far from causal, there are promising alternatives to student discipline that make schools safer and do not involve excluding children from schools.

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