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Study: Small Number of Teachers Account for Half of Racial Discipline Difference

Although there’s little to no evidence to show that Black schoolchildren misbehave more than white ones, a growing body of research has shown that Black children are disciplined very differently. Black children are punished more severely than white children for the same infractions and are likelier to receive consequences that take them out of the school environment, like suspensions and expulsions. These sorts of punishments have been linked to negative outcomes later in life, such as academic achievement gaps and contact with the justice system.

Now, researchers studying K-12 disciplinary referrals have made a surprising discovery: more than half of the disparities between white students and students of color can be traced back to a shockingly small group of teachers.

Dr. Jing Liu, assistant professor of education policy at the University Maryland College ParkDr. Jing Liu, assistant professor of education policy at the University Maryland College ParkDr. Jing Liu, an assistant professor of education policy at the University Maryland College Park, and his colleagues looked at Office Discipline Referrals (ODRs), in a large, diverse, urban K-12 school district in California. ODRs are a record of a critical step in the disciplinary process—when a student is sent to the principal’s office. Liu found that most teachers send a student out of the classroom less than once every two months. However, the 5% of teachers who issued the most ODRs did so at a much faster rate—about once every four days. This small group of teachers—80, in a district with nearly 3,000 instructors—had an outsize effect on racial discipline gaps. Without them, Black students received ODRs 1.6 times as much as white students. With them, the total more than doubled, to 3.4 times as much. Similar effects were observed for Hispanic and multiracial students.

Liu and his colleagues found evidence that implicit bias is a key cause: the study showed that the increase in the gap was primarily driven by referrals for subjective reasons, such as interpersonal offenses and defiance, rather than more objective ones, like violence, drugs, or truancy.

“More subjective reasons for referral tend to be more likely to contain bias,” said Liu. “The criteria to write a referral based on those reasons are a little bit fuzzier.”

However, these high-referring teachers aren’t necessarily more biased than their colleagues. The reason for their high rate of referrals may be troubles with classroom management. The researchers found that the top referrers were most likely to be white middle school teachers in the first three years of their careers.

“The first few years of being a teacher is overall challenging,” said Liu. “They haven’t accumulated enough experience working with students.”

Dr. NaLette Brodnax, an assistant professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, agreed.

“Another reason is that teachers with less experience are following the book,” she said. “They may not feel like they have very much discretion and may feel that they need to strike down any difficult behavior that’s happening in the classroom.”

Luckily, there’s evidence that things improve with time. The study found that referrals tended to drop off, especially after three years of experience and that about three-quarters of the top referrers each year did not remain in that category the next year.

But what about those initial years, when students of color are targeted for discipline at unfairly elevated levels?

Liu thought that mere awareness could be helpful.

“I don’t know how much top referrers realize how extensively they’ve been using referrals as a tool,” Liu said. “Sometimes we’re doing something, and we don’t realize how we compare to our peers.”

Liu also recommended training and support for these teachers. The study includes evidence that such training could work, pointing to an experiment in California middle schools that found that prompts about the benefits of empathic mindsets in the classroom could lead to more empathic responses to hypothetical situations by teachers. The study argued that the relatively low number of instructors causing the effect could be an advantage, making training easier to implement.

However, Dr. Russell Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington who won an award from the civil rights organization Rainbow/PUSH for his work on the racial discipline gap, thought that things might not be so straightforward.

“It will be very hard. How do you really assist those teachers in improving their skills rather than calling them out as lousy managers or racist?” said Skiba. “Just think about your reaction if you happen to be one of these teachers. How far would you go to avoid being identified for that? How much would you resist that?”

Skiba also questioned whether schools would have the time and funding to offer the help that these teachers need.

“In order for schools to take this issue on, [they] would need leadership at the district level and the state level, and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see that unless you have strong leadership on the national level,” he said. “That’s just not happening with this administration.”

Dr. NaLette Brodnax, assistant professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown UniversityDr. NaLette Brodnax, assistant professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown UniversityBrodnax warned that even training all the top referrers is unlikely to fully solve the problem.

“I don’t think it’s a case of, it’s a few bad apples and if we address the bad apples, then we can fix this issue,” she said. “The problem is systemic and institutionalized. There may be structural aspects of schooling that put certain teachers in a position to feel that they need more referrals.”

Such structural aspects could include how classrooms are assigned and school policies like those requiring that students maintain an upright posture and track teachers with their eyes.

“If you’re training teachers to control students in a very narrow, specific way, just about anything could be considered disrespectful,” Brodnax said. “We really need more research to better understand what’s happening.”

Despite its limits, Skiba called the study “tremendously important,”  in light of moves in several states to return to stricter, zero tolerance-style disciplinary systems.

“A lot of the assumption coming from this reactionary wave is that there are certain kids who are problematic, and we have to ‘protect our schools’ from those kids,” said Skiba. “This type of research points out that that’s an extremely simplistic argument.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected].

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