No, it’s not because they misbehave more

By Richard O. Welsh — August 19, 2021

Racial disparities in disciplinary suspensions of students from school have acquired greater significance given the substantial disruptions, including widening gaps in achievement, caused by COVID-19. These disparities were well documented before the onset of the pandemic. In 2015-16, when students lost 11 million days of instruction from suspensions, Black students lost nearly five times the number of days as white students. Some studies suggest similar disparities for Latinx students in some locations and schooling levels.

At some point in history, educational stakeholders apparently became comfortable with school discipline resembling the criminal-justice system. Common misconceptions about the root cause of discipline disparities continue to support this stance. Yet a robust school discipline research base counters these misconceptions and provides some vetted alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline policies.

One popular misconception is that differences in student behavior by race accounts for a large proportion of the gap in suspensions. However, as Shafiqua Little of Research for Action and I found in a systematic review of the research, studies have largely dispelled the notion that racial differences in exclusionary discipline are due to either higher rates of involvement in misbehavior or more severe misbehavior among Black students.Another widespread misconception is that student socioeconomic status drives differences in who receives exclusionary discipline, with poor children more likely to be suspended. Several studies show that poverty at either the student or school level does not solely explain the rates of exclusionary discipline. At all socioeconomic levels, Black students are more likely to be suspended than white students.

Instead, discipline disparitiesare better explained by the behavior of adults—teachers, assistant principals, and principals—in schools than by student misbehavior or poverty. Less severe infractions make up the majority of disciplinary referrals to the school office, but teachers refer Black and white students differently for the same kind of misbehavior. White students are referred more than Black students for objective behaviors (for example, smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language), and Black students are referred more than white students for subjective behaviors (for example, defiance of authority, disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering).

Why do these racial differences in disciplinary referrals and suspensions exist? Recent evidence suggests that classroom- and school-level factors play a role. When Black students have a Black teacher, they have lower rates of suspensions and expulsions, but despite growing student diversity, the teaching workforce remains largely white.

Teacher responses to misbehavior may be attributable to teachers’ racial perceptions and bias. Teachers as a group are more likely to deem students’ behavior harmful or indicative of a harmful pattern when those students are Black. Similarly, misconduct from Black students is punished more harshly than the same misconduct from white students.

While many programs appear to decrease suspension

School characteristics such as a higher percentage of Black students and lower average school achievement make the probability of out-of-school suspension or expulsion greater and partly explain disparities in discipline. Principals differ in their approach to discipline, and these variations influence suspension rates as well. Some evidence also suggests that students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the racial climate at schools can explain discipline disparities.

Several alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline policies and practices have emerged. Program-based approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Restorative Practices try to both improve school culture broadly and provide school personnel with skills in behavior management and student discipline. Policy-based approaches focus on changing school and district responses to misbehavior by, for example, restricting the use of suspension in elementary grades for subjective offenses like incivility or disorderly conduct.

Yet while many programs appear to decrease suspension rates, racial disparities persist. Even studies published in the past five years have found that the benefits of program-based interventions do not appear, on average, to have greater benefits for Black students. Additionally, although social and emotional learning is viewed by many as a way to curb student misbehavior, there is little empirical research examining SEL as an effective way to address rates of discipline or to end racial or ethnic disparities.

And all told, a majority of programs in our systematic review focused on helping students assimilate to school culture rather than crafting the school culture to fit the social, emotional, and cultural needs of students. The programs lead schools to focus more on achieving behavior management through conformity and less on addressing the cultural clashes that may be driving discipline disparities. To date, interventions have given insufficient attention to issues of race and culture and have focused predominantly on student misbehavior.

Some bright spots do appear in this evidence base. School discipline reforms that reduce office disciplinary referrals for Black students, including programs encompassing culturally responsive practices and enhanced classroom-management strategies, have the potential to reduce racial inequality in suspensions. For example, infusing Restorative Practice and PBIS with culturally responsive teaching practices shows promise in reducing suspensions for Black students.

Programs such as GREET-STOP-PROMPT or training on cultural responsiveness coupled with classroom coaching for teachers (such as Double Check cultural responsivity and student engagement coaching) have reduced referrals for Black students. MyTeachingPartner, a program that focuses on improving classroom climate and teacher support for students, also appears to narrow the racial gap in discipline. Helping teachers adopt an empathic mindset reduced disciplinary referrals overall. Many programs that have been effective center their efforts on teacher coaching and staff professional development, suggesting that supporting teachers and school leaders is pivotal to reducing racial inequality in suspensions.

The underlying causes of the disparities in disciplinary outcomes are, in many ways, byproducts of larger issues in K–12 schooling, such as a lack of workforce diversity, weak classroom management, and shortfalls in the cultural capability of teachers. Given this, there is no silver bullet. Instead, strategic coordination of various alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline is critical, as these levers work in tandem to dismantle disparities. Policies prohibiting suspensions for less severe offenses, for example, can be coupled with a school-based program such as Restorative Practices and augmented by professional development on classroom management and culturally responsive practices for teachers and school leaders.

And whatever the pathway toward improvement, honest conversations about the role of race and culture in education and society are precursors to solving the conundrum.