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?”

‘It feels like losing a family’

This Memphis poetry team is the best in the state. But they will scatter as their school closes.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The GRAD Academy poetry team, from left to right: Olivia Randle, ShuKyra Harris, Alesha Griggs, Belle Edgeston, Timothy Moore, MarQuita Henderson, Zakyah Harris.

MarQuita Henderson had a vision for how her senior year of high school at GRAD Academy Memphis was going to go.

The 11th-grader was going to continue leading her school’s award-winning poetry team, which she believes changed her life. She was going to graduate with her best friends. She was already working on a poem to perform at graduation.

But all that changed in January, when GRAD Academy announced it was closing the charter school in South Memphis in June because of high costs and low enrollment. The school enrolled 468 students this year in a school built for 2,000. GRAD opened in 2013 as part of the Achievement School District, a state-run district tasked with turning around low-performing schools.

In a city with too many schools and too few students, school closures have been common in  Memphis, mostly because of low enrollment and poor academic performance. At least 21 schools have closed since 2012 in the local district, Shelby County Schools. Over the past year, four schools in the state-run district have announced closures.

“It’s hard to think about us not being together next year after we spent so much time thinking about being seniors together,” MarQuita, 17, told Chalkbeat. “But I think, at least I did poetry here. I have a new confidence in myself. There’s a voice in me that wasn’t there before.”

MarQuita is one of six students on GRAD’s poetry team, which was founded three years ago and is led by Timothy Moore, a creative writing teacher. The group was named the best high school poetry team in Tennessee this month by Southern Word, a statewide poetry competition.

The team has become incredibly close knit, they said. They have traveled outside of Memphis for poetry competitions, spent hours editing each other’s work, and doing homework together. They lean on each other if they are having a bad day, need some support, or just want to hang out.

“I didn’t really know anyone on the team when I joined this year, I just knew being on the poetry team had been my dream all of high school,” said Alesha Griggs, 16. “But now, it’s like I can’t imagine not knowing these girls. And we’ll lean on each other now more than ever, because we’re going to new schools where we don’t know anyone else.”

Moore, who has taught at GRAD for four years, tries to make sure the conversations around school closures include the voices of those most affected — the students.

“As a team, we’ve been able to work through some of the anger and hurt that came with the announcement our school was closing,” Moore said. “We’ve had a space to do that. So many students don’t. But I still worry, will another teacher look after them next year? Did I do enough for them?”

The six friends will be split between three high schools — Hillcrest, Middle College, and Craigmont.

Most of them live in the neighborhood surrounding GRAD Academy, where school closures are all too familiar. The school is housed in the former South Side High School building, which was converted into a middle school and then closed in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

“I was at South Side Middle School when it closed,” MarQuita said. “So when I heard GRAD was closing, my first thought was, is this our fault again? It feels like losing a family.”

Unlike in many school closures, GRAD Academy officials said they weren’t closing the school because of floundering academics. It has the greatest percentage of ASD high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  But “higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs” were cited by GRAD officials as the main reasons to close.

For poetry member Belle Edgeston, that reasoning wasn’t enough.

“The reason, that it was such a business decision… still bothers me,” said Belle, 17. “We were the future 12th-grade class. That meant something to us, especially in being able to mentor younger kids in poetry.”

All six poetry members said being on the team has had a significant impact on their lives  — especially under Moore’s leadership.

“This is my first year with a 4.0 GPA,” said Olivia Randle, 16. “I didn’t think that was possible. But I also would have never dreamed of us winning state, or of getting to travel for poetry. Mr. Moore made us think more of ourselves.”

Tamala Boyd-Shaw, the executive director of GRAD Memphis, said she’s proud of the confidence and experiences students have gained as part of Moore’s team.

“The students’ poems are often about struggles they endure as students in their own communities and families,” Boyd-Shaw said. “It’s allowed them to reflect and be proud, not just of what they’re saying, but of who they are. My hope is that all of our students land in schools next year that gives them opportunities like this.”

The girls hope to keep practicing together next school year, even though they know scheduling will be hard. Moore said he was hopeful they will keep competing, either as individuals or as a team.

“We’re going to become masters of group apps and Skype,” Moore said. “But I know we’re really going to miss writing as a family together after class. It’s funny, I’m a 36-year-old man, and I’m surprised at how much they taught me. They helped me find my own voice.”

Watch students Kyla Lewis and Olivia Randle perform “Systematical Fear:”

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.