Equity & Diversity

Want to Reduce Suspensions for Students of Color? Look to Teachers of Color

By Madeline Will — March 02, 2022 6 min read
Image of a teacher in front of a classroom.
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Black and Hispanic students are suspended at disproportionately high rates compared to their peers, a phenomenon that starts as early as preschool. But assigning them to a teacher of the same race can lessen the likelihood of suspension, a recent study finds.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that teachers of color have positive effects on both the academic and social-emotional success of students, and particularly students of color.

The research in the working paper from scholars at George Washington University and the University of California, Berkeley, was published this fall. It suggests that teachers of color may have classroom management techniques or pedagogical practices that help them build more-productive relationships with students of color without resorting to suspensions. White teachers may also have unconscious biases that lead them to judge the behavior of students of color more harshly than they do white students.

The study reiterates the importance of diversifying the teacher workforce and learning from the teachers of color who are already in the profession, especially with student behavior infractions on the rise this school year.

After all, the conversation around teacher diversity “isn’t just about changing the faces of the people who are in front of our children. It’s also about bringing in diverse experiences ... [and] different renditions of how to do teaching,” said José Vilson, the founder of the grassroots group EduColor and a former New York City math teacher who was not involved in the study.

Prior research has found that Black students are less likely to be suspended, expelled, or placed in detention by Black teachers. But this new study is among the first to examine whether these effects can be generalized to large, urban school districts or to Latinx or Asian American students and teachers. One in 5 male Latino students is suspended before he enters high school.

To conduct the study, Matthew Shirrell, an assistant professor at George Washington University, Travis Bristol, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Tolani Britton, an assistant professor also at Berkeley, analyzed 10 years of data on teachers and students in New York City, the nation’s largest school district.

The researchers found that when Black and Latinx students in grades 4-8 are assigned greater proportions of teachers of the same race, they are significantly less likely to be suspended from school. Asian American students are also less likely to be suspended when they have a same-race teacher, but to a less statistically significant degree.

In other words, the researchers projected that raising the representation of teachers of color who teach same-race students in New York City would result in about 230 fewer suspensions for Asian American students, 1,500 fewer suspensions for Latinx students, and 1,800 fewer suspensions for Black students over a 10-year period.

The median length of suspension is five days for Black and Latinx students and three days for Asian American students, so this reduction in suspensions would translate to about 680 more days in school for Asian American students, 7,800 more days for Latinx students, and 9,000 more days for Black students over 10 years.

Nationally, teachers of color make up just 21 percent of the workforce, although more than half of students are students of color. Some students will never have a teacher of their same race.

Suspensions take a toll on students’ long-term outcomes

The data covered the 2007-08 through 2016-17 school years. During this time, New York City implemented several reforms of discipline policies to encourage restorative practices and decrease the number of suspensions, especially for elementary students. Suspension rates did drop in New York City over the period of the study, both overall and for subgroups of students. Researchers accounted for that trend in their analysis.

Even so, in 2016, Black and Latinx students in New York City were 3.6 and 1.7 times more likely to be suspended, respectively, compared to their white peers. Black students also tend to receive longer suspensions than other students who commit the same infractions. And past research shows the long-term toll that suspensions can take on a student, including links to lower academic achievement and a lower likelihood of civic engagement.

In this study, the researchers wanted to focus on large, urban districts because they hold the greatest concentrations of students of color—yet there are still acute disparities between students’ race and that of their teachers.

For example, in the 2007-08 school year, 85 percent of white students’ teachers were also white, 42 percent of Black students’ teachers were Black, 19 percent of Latinx students’ teachers were Latinx, and 9 percent of Asian American students’ teachers were also Asian American. That proportion remained relatively consistent over the 10 years of the study.

Teachers of color may have more effective classroom practices

While the study couldn’t explain why teachers of color were less likely to suspend students of color, there are a few potential reasons. First, teachers’ conscious and unconscious biases play into how they perceive the severity of student misbehavior. White teachers may have absorbed negative stereotypes about students of color and be quicker to refer them for exclusionary discipline.

“Is it that teachers who have [students] who can look like their little cousin or their children are more empathetic when an incident occurs?” said Britton, one of the study’s authors.

Also, another recent study found teachers of color are more likely to practice culturally responsive teaching, which can include having high expectations for all students, differentiating instruction, and building relationships with students and their families.

Vilson said that in his experience, Black and Latinx teachers are more likely to consistently reach out to students’ parents. “They’re more likely to be connected to the community in some way, shape, or form,” he said.

It’s possible that because teachers of color are more likely to understand students’ cultural circumstances and social-emotional needs than white teachers, they’re better able to support students of color, the study noted. They also might have classroom management strategies that are particularly effective with students of color, Britton said.

“There are practices that these teachers are employing that allow for students to stay in the classroom, which is the goal of every single teacher,” she said. “How can we make that happen more often?”

The goal, Britton said, is not to match every student of color with a teacher of the same race. Instead, she said, school leaders should try to learn from the practices of teachers of color. Recruiting more teachers of color into the profession is important, too, but it can’t be the only takeaway, Britton said.

“We can’t wait 10 years for the pipeline to change because children are in school today,” she said.

And educators this year are reporting that students are misbehaving more these days than they did before the pandemic—a possible consequence of the transition back to in-person schooling after so much time spent at home or of the trauma many students experienced because of COVID-19.

“Children are in crisis for so many reasons,” Britton said. “When children are in crisis, they’re going to act out. We’re going to see behaviors that we may not have seen before or are more serious than we’ve seen before.”

Fostering supportive classroom environments without the threat of inequitable discipline “is more pressing than ever,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Want to Reduce Suspensions for Students Of Color? Look to Teachers of Color

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