discipline dispute

As national debate over discipline heats up, new study finds discrimination in student suspensions

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Black students in Louisiana are suspended for slightly longer than white students after being involved in the same fight, according to new research that adds to a roiling national debate about school discipline.

The study comes as the U.S. Department of Education appears to be considering rescinding Obama-era guidance on school discipline. Its findings — that black students are treated more harshly — bolster the case of civil rights groups that want the guidelines to remain, noting that suspension rates for America’s black and poor students remain disproportionately high.

“Given that we find that direct discrimination occurs in this context, with a black and white student receiving different punishments for the same exact incident, it seems likely that direct discrimination would [also] occur where discipline disparities are less visible,” the researchers write.

Still, the difference between suspensions given to black and white students was quite small, amounting to a fraction of a school day.

The research, released by the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University, used a trove of discipline data from Louisiana that stretched from 2001 to 2014. Consistent with past research, the study finds that black and poor students have substantially higher suspension rates than white and more affluent peers.

Figuring out why is tricky. Is it because certain groups of students behave differently, or because teachers and administrators respond differently to the same behavior?

The study can’t rule out the possibility that the small difference in length of suspensions was due to factors like whether one student instigated the fight. But the researchers argue that a fight between two students is an objective offense where school officials would be expected to treat participants similarly. The fact that even in this context there is evidence of bias, however small, is worrisome, they say.

The study is directly relevant to the debate about the 2014 federal guidance, which warned schools that the Department of Education might initiate civil rights investigations “based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information.” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said she was “looking closely at” this guidance, and conservatives have urged her to scrap it altogether on the grounds that it has contributed to disorder in schools.

Much of the debate turns on how to interpret well-documented disparities in suspension rates.

Mike Petrilli, a critic of federal efforts to monitor school discipline and the head of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, analogizes the debate to the discussion around the test-score “achievement gap.”

“Nobody would say that we’re going to look at these achievement gaps and say that all of the achievement gap is because teachers are racist,” he said. “We might say part of that is.”

Petrilli suggests that the guidance has schools fearing that they risk being accused of discrimination based just on suspension differences across student groups.

Catherine Lhamon, who served as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the education department under Obama and is now the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that guidance doesn’t suggest that suspension rates should be interpreted as proof of discrimination. “Data alone is not evidence of discrimination,” she said, but it “is relevant to an inquiry.”

The Tulane study marks an attempt to see if discrimination really is at play. The researchers compared the length of suspensions given to black and white students for the same infraction in Louisiana. Black students, they found, are suspended for longer — 2.6 school days, compared to 2.2 days. This gap shrinks but still exists when comparing black and white students in the same school, grade, and school year.

That suggests, but does not prove, that there is discrimination involved in those decisions.

The researchers then examined suspensions after a fight between a black and a white student. They found that, even controlling for past incidents of fighting, black students receive longer suspensions — though the difference was very small, equivalent to black students facing one additional day of suspension for every 20 fights.

Past studies have come to conflicting results on the question of bias: Consistent with the theory of bias, black students are more likely to be suspended for those discretionary offenses than objective behaviors. Black teachers are also less likely to suspend black students compared to white teachers and perceive behavior of black students differently.

On the other side, there is evidence that the race-based gap in discipline is accounted for by past behavioral issues (though if those prior behaviors were reported with bias, that would invalidate these results).

The Tulane study points out that even if discipline disparities are not caused by direct bias at the school level, they likely are due to broader societal issues, including long-standing discrimination.

Even if schools are responding to genuine differences in behavior across groups of students, the authors write, “this exonerates neither schools nor broader societal forces from contributing to varying levels of misbehavior.”

As DeVos reconsiders, the debate intensifies

Meanwhile, Petrilli says he is trying to reduce the intensity of the debate, writing a blog post titled, “In search of common ground on school discipline reform.”

The debate seems to be growing more polarized instead.

Just recently, Petrilli organized a visit for teachers who said school discipline reforms had led to chaos in the classroom to speak to leaders at the U.S. Department of Education. Katherine Kersten, who wrote an essay critical of discipline reform efforts titled “No Thug Left Behind,” helped connect Petrilli to Minnesota teachers for the visit.

(Kersten said she didn’t write the title, though didn’t see a problem with it. “Some children are thugs,” she said in an interview.)

And an op-ed in the New York Daily News by Max Eden and Robert Pondiscio linked school discipline reform efforts in New York City to the recent stabbing death of a high school student. (There’s no evidence that changes in discipline policies led to this fatality, though they point to surveys showing a decline in students who felt safe at the school.)

Progressives are also on high alert about the Trump administration’s record on civil rights.

In an op-ed earlier this year, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan linked student suspensions to a broader critique of the administration, writing, “Leaving enforcement of civil rights laws to states will breed chaos, undermine the education of millions of children, and subject students of every age to abuse, neglect, indifference and outright racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant hostility.”

While conservative critics of the discipline reform efforts have embraced teachers who say the policies have been poorly implemented, national teachers unions say they support the existing guidance.

“Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same infractions,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “We must confront the racial bias that underlies that reality, which the current guidance attempts to do.” Weingarten has written about her own change of heart about harsh discipline policies.

Harry Lawson, the director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, also said the union was opposed to rescinding guidance, but said some places that have implemented discipline reforms have hit challenges.

Even supporters have acknowledged as much. A report by the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that backs reduction in exclusionary discipline, for instance, found that the Miami-Dade school district’s promise to eliminate student suspensions led to the creation of “student success centers” that became “little more than warehouses for students who have been removed from school.”

Lawson said the key is training and resources to implement alternatives to suspensions. He said the NEA sometimes hears feedback from members akin to the teachers from Minnesota who spoke to Department of Education officials — but that they weren’t representative.

“What we also hear more of is a recognition from our members that there is something wrong [with exclusionary discipline],” he said. “And generally what they are asking is, what do we do … and can you all support us?”

yeshiva findings

After 3-year probe into yeshivas, city admits it was blocked from visiting many schools, found little instruction in math and English

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

At some of New York City’s yeshivas, attendance was voluntary when it came time to learn secular subjects like math and English. Students said they didn’t learn math beyond basic division and fractions. None of the students reported receiving steady lessons in science. 

That’s according to a long-delayed probe by the New York City education department into whether some of the city’s private Jewish schools are providing an adequate secular education for students. But even as the city released findings on Thursday, it admitted that it was never able to go inside any high schools and never received a full set of curriculum materials to evaluate — significant gaps for a report that took three years to be released.

In a letter sent to the state education commissioner on Aug. 15, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza asked the state for guidance on how to proceed after a recent change in law that put the state education commissioner in charge of evaluating the schools. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter. 

“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided,” Carranza said in a statement.

The letter marks a new phase of an investigation sparked by current and former students and parents who complained they received little instruction in math or English while attending the schools. The city has been accused of delaying the investigation to avoid angering a politically powerful community.

New York requires private schools to provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools, and that allows the schools to access public money for things like school security. Students and parents who were interviewed for the probe said they received instruction in math and English for only 90 minutes for four days out of the week, and all but two said they received “little to no” history lessons, according to the city’s letter.

The report finds that some schools have adopted new curriculums in English and math, but officials have not been able to evaluate the new materials because they haven’t received a complete set.

The city also said that officials at eight of the schools they were unable to visit recently gave word that they would schedule meetings.

Read Carranza’s full letter here.

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a ‘cornerstone’ of school improvement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza, bottom right, joined New York City principals and superintendents for an anti-bias training in Brooklyn.

After bending fluorescent pipe cleaners into loopy and angular shapes, a group of about 100 New York City principals and superintendents paired up for a chat. Their assignment: to recount their childhood aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was no arts and crafts class — and no ice breaker, either. The Wednesday morning session at Brooklyn Law School was an example of anti-bias training that the education department will now require for every employee who works with students across the country’s largest school system.

After committing $23 million to the work this year, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced at the session that the trainings will be mandatory, and that the city aims to speed up how quickly they happen. The goal is to compress the original four-year roll out to two.

“It’s about us as a community saying we want to change systems so that it privileges all of our students in New York City,” Carranza said. “The evidence right now, I will tell you my friends, is that not all students are being served well.”

Advocates had long agitated for the training, citing disparate rates in school discipline for black and Hispanic students, and high-profile incidents of schools accused of teaching racist lessons in the classroom. They argue that teachers need to be better equipped to serve diverse students as the city moves forward with plans to integrate its starkly segregated schools.

“We have to make school environments the most welcoming places possible for our young people. That includes adults doing personal work,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent organization that lobbied for the training.  

Their advocacy has gotten a boost since Carranza became schools chancellor in April, bringing an approach that is bolder and more frank than his predecessor when it comes to addressing the system’s racial inequities. On Wednesday, he spent more than an hour participating in the training session just like the other school leaders, calling it “God’s work.”

“This is going to penetrate everything we do,” he said.

Wednesday’s session was lead by experts from the Perception Institute, a research and training organization, and Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), which provides leadership training. The pipe cleaners helped bring to life a metaphor about “bending” expectations for what educators might learn throughout the day. The one-on-one conversations were a way to “interrupt” stereotypical assumptions about other people by having sustained conversations with them, said trainer Dushaw Hockett.

“This isn’t some touchy-feely, get-to-know-you exercise,” he said.  

There is some evidence that, when done right, anti-bias trainings can work — and improve outcomes for students. But there is also research that shows it can often be ineffective.

Carranza said the city is committed to doing the work for the long-term, with the trainings designed to be ongoing and build on each other. He also said the department will keep an eye on measures such as student attendance and whether teachers report improvements in school climate to gauge whether it’s having an impact.

“This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of, how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students?” he said. “This is going to be something that’s not going to fall off the radar. We’re going to keep pushing.”