School & District Management

Teacher Race Linked With Student Discipline Rates in Preliminary Study

By Holly Kurtz — March 24, 2016 3 min read
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Teachers are less likely to punish students of their own race by removing them from the classroom or the school, a preliminary study of North Carolina elementary schools found.

The results are most pronounced when both teacher and student are African American, according to study authors Constance A. Lindsay, professorial lecturer at American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, and Cassandra M.D. Hart, an assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of California, Davis.

Black teachers are also slightly less likely to punish students of other races with so-called “exclusionary discipline practices” like suspensions, detention or expulsions.

The study examined six years of data for about 1.1 million students, and 50,000 teachers. It focused in on black and white teachers and students because those are the two biggest racial groups in North Carolina.

The researchers presented their results earlier this month in Denver, at the 41st annual conference of the American Association for Education Finance and Policy.

The racially-linked differences in punishment are not huge. On average, elementary school students with same-race teachers are 1 percent to 3 percent less likely to get suspended, expelled, or detained than those with teachers of different races, depending upon the demographics of the teacher and the student, and a host of other factors that the researchers took into account. Black teachers are also slighly less likely to use these kinds of punishments with students who are not black.

It’s important to note that suspensions, detentions, and expulsions are relatively rare in elementary schools, Lindsay said. Less than 7 percent of students studied had been suspended, detained or expelled. In the future, the researchers hope to expand upon their study with a similar analysis of older students. But that gets complicated, since secondary students typically have multiple teachers.

Although the race-related differences the researchers identified are not great, exclusionary discipline can have long-lasting and large impacts on the students exposed to it. Suspended or expelled students lose out on learning time. Suspensions can also feed the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline, weakening the relationships that already-troubled students have with teachers and peers, and leaving them with more unsupervised time to get into mischief at home and on the streets. Evidence also abounds that black students receive a disproportionate share of these punishments.

Outside of education, there’s a great deal of evidence that the public sector functions more smoothly when the demographics of its employees reflect the demographics of the people served, according to a review essay published last year in Educational Researcher, a peer-refereed journal. But education researchers just haven’t studied this topic as much, the review found. The results of the studies that do exist do suggest that student outcomes, including discipline rates, may be better when teacher and student demographics match. But the Educational Researcher article found that many of these studies suffer from methodological limitations, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about teacher-student demographic matches.

Lindsay and Hart’s study addresses some of these methodological concerns by breaking out the data for individual teachers and their students instead of examining discipline rates and demographics for entire districts or schools, like older studies. A sub-part of their analysis also accounts for student home environments by comparing siblings with one another.

If education researchers do establish a firm link between teacher demographics and student outcomes, it’s not clear what to do about it. Do we match teachers with same-race students? Do we aim to increase the overall diversity of the teaching force? The former isn’t necessarily feasible or desirable. The latter is challenging: As the nation’s public school students have grown increasingly diverse, their teachers have remained solidly white, as seen in the table below, which comes from a 2015 report by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank supported by the American Federation of Teachers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.