Students of color continue to be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers for the same behaviors—so much so that last month the Biden Administration warned schools that inequitable discipline practices could violate federal civil rights laws.
But a new study published this week in the journal Educational Researcher suggests targeted teacher supports could do a lot to shrink discipline gaps.
That’s because about 5 percent of teachers—mostly those in their first three years in the field—accounted for nearly 35 percent of all discipline referrals, the study found. In practical terms, these teachers sent a student to the office for discipline on average once every four days, while their colleagues referred fewer than one student for discipline, on average, every other month.
Jing Liu and Wenjing Gao, education researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Emily K. Penner at the University of California, Irvine, tracked office discipline referrals—generally the first step in the discipline process—from more than 2,900 K-12 teachers in more than 100 schools in a large, unnamed urban school district in California. They analyzed data on more than 79,000 K-12 students from 2016-2020.
The 5 percent highest-referring teachers were much more likely to refer students of color than their white peers—so much so that their discipline referrals essentially doubled the discipline gaps between Black and white students, and Hispanic and white students, in their schools.
The average teacher referred 1.6 Black students for every white student sent out for misbehavior. But the top-referring teachers referred more than twice as many Black students for every white student.
Teachers tended to fall back on sending students to the office when they had less experience or fewer skills in other classroom management approaches. For example, a majority of schools now report using restorative discipline, which requires students in conflict to come together to talk through a problem and find solutions, but teachers have reported limited training in how to use the approach successfully.
Differences showed up by licensing, too. “Teachers who have credentials in special education and English learners are less likely to be top referrers, probably because they got more training about how to manage student behavior when they got credentials,” Liu said.
While novice teachers are much more likely to be among the top discipline referrers in a school, “it’s not something that stays with one person,” he said. “As teachers get more senior, when they accumulate more classroom management skills, they are no longer in the top referral category.”
Prior federal efforts to close discipline gaps have focused on limiting exclusionary practices like out-of-school suspensions, but that doesn’t always change teachers’ office referrals, an earlier step on the discipline continuum. The California district studied limited student suspensions to objective misbehaviors like drug use, violence, or truancy, but Liu found “teachers are still making a ton of referrals based on the reason of pupil defiance,” or other subjective class behaviors.
The results suggest school leaders may be able to significantly close discipline disparities by collecting systematic data on each teacher’s discipline referrals and providing mentoring and classroom-management support for those who have high or disproportionate referral rates.
“We must try very hard to not blame any individual teachers, because we really see that those early-career teachers are more likely to teach in very challenging contexts, and they’re lacking the tools and resources to deal with student behavior,” Liu said. “So I think professional development, especially on classroom management, can be very helpful for early-career teachers. I don’t think anyone would continue with that excessive referring if they realized how much of an impact their referrals would have on their students.”
Exclusionary discipline can devastate students. Prior studies suggest every out-of-school suspension reduces a student’s likelihood of ultimately graduating high school, and disproportionate discipline practices mean that Black students, for example, can end up missing five times as much school their white peers for the same misbehaviors.
Liu said he and his colleagues hope to pick apart what makes some new teachers less likely to use discipline referrals.
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as Targeting Training to Just a Few Teachers Could Help Cut Racial Discipline Gap in Half