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?”

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a “cornerstone” to 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.”

outside the box

How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Test scores were rising at Fuller Elementary School when Marilyn McCottrell took over in 2016. Yet troubling trends loomed behind the numbers.

“A lot of growth has been made,” said McCottrell, Fuller’s third principal in six years. “But that growth is not equal among students.”

She’s talking about black boys.

Black girls had driven most of Fuller’s academic improvement since the 2012-13 school year, when Chicago Public Schools handed management of the Bronzeville school over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which replaced the staff and principal in a turnaround effort. Black boys had improved much slower. They got most of the school’s Ds and Fs, and were much less likely than girls to meet or approach expectations for college readiness on state tests.

PARCC Scores

Last school year, McCottrell and her staff crunched the data and made changes at Fuller to shorten the gaps between boys and girls. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. As adults, they are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, or chronically unemployed. McCottrell believes what Fuller did, starting with painstakingly crunching data at the school, classroom and individual levels, could help other schools do better for black boys.

But she wants to be clear about something: Black boys don’t need to be “saved.”

“They need to be respected and appreciated for the differences and the unique gifts that they bring to the educational experience,” she said.

Black boys
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Fuller Elementary School students (from left)Tyrese Robinson-Guy, Terrell Johnson, and Jasean Waters at a community garden in Bronzeville.

 

Fuller, a Level 1 school in good standing, occupies the corner of St. Lawrence Avenue and 42nd Street in Bronzeville. Nearly all of its 370 students are black and come from economically disadvantaged households. About half of the teachers are white, and about half are African-American. When CPS turned over management of Fuller, it was seeking to lift up a school that had been on academic probation five consecutive years. Fuller still has far to go. In 2017, only 10 percent of Fuller students were ready for the next level compared to 26 percent across the school district and 34 percent across the state. Growth has been above average, but, as McCottrell said, that growth hasn’t been equal.

PARCC Scores

Last August, McCottrell arrived at Fuller for a training session for teachers bearing handouts packed with data on black boys’ grades and test scores. Middle school reading teacher Arlicia McClain was shocked to see the stark disparities.

“It made me buck up and say I need to talk to these students,” she said. “I need to know what is going on that is preventing them from improving. Is it me? Is it something going on with them individually? Is it something they are missing?”

Girls’ math scores had increased by 193 percent compared with 90 percent for boys since the turnaround effort began in the 2012-13 school year. The gender performance gap was even more striking in reading, where black girls’ scores jumped 140 percent compared with 31 percent for boys. 

As McClain and other teachers reflected on the numbers, they recounted their  own experiences in the classroom. For example, they could all name which students were removed from class the most for disciplinary reasons, and nearly all were black boys.

Arlicia McClain
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arlicia McClain
Fuller Elementary School teacher Arlicia McClain.

McClain realized she tended to call on black girls more in class.

McClain, African-American herself, wondered if she was favoring girls or failing to challenge boys enough, and how that could affect their learning. She resolved to push black boys more during her second year at Fuller. 

She also left the session with another big take-away: A lot of boys who wouldn’t participate in classroom-wide sessions engaged more in small groups. Wedding the data to her realizations has helped the young teacher come up with tailored approaches for struggling students.

“Look at them as individuals who want to learn, but who sometimes need the individualized attention to do that,” McClain said. “If you really are about the progression of black youth, you’re going to need to be individual-focused, and you’re going to need the data to do it.”

In the 2016-17 school year, for the subjects of English language arts and math, about 70 percent of all Ds and Fs at Fuller went to black boys.

In the first quarter of last school year, McCottrell and her staff revised Fuller’s grading policies in hopes of addressing the disparity.

They switched to what McCottrell called “a more equitable grading scale,” where the lowest a student could score is a 50, adopted a “no-opt out policy” for homework, so children who failed to turn in their homework by deadline wouldn’t automatically get a zero and had to make up assignments, and allowed students to redo certain parts of failed tests and quizzes after reteaching.

By the end of the first quarter, the numbers of Ds and Fs had decreased by nearly half.

But black boys were still getting about the same percent of them as before.

So McCottrell decided to go in for a closer look.

“The numbers only tell part of the story,” she said.

McCottrell ate with boys in the lunchroom. She played flag football with them at recess. She sat with them in class, assisted their teachers, and taught her own lessons across grades and subjects.

She talked to the boys — and listened.

Jasean Waters, a black boy

Jasean Waters, 13, said he found it hard to focus on his school work.

Some distractions come from inside the classroom, like the bullies Jasean’s run into. Other distractions live in the world outside Fuller, like the gun violence whose victims are overwhelmingly black males.

“It’s a big struggle for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dying around here, so we gotta watch our backs, and when we’re walking home we feel like we’re unsafe, so we just focus on us being safe. It’s hard to focus on school.”

Boredom is another issue. Jasean said that he does well in math, but struggles sometimes with reading, and that his interest wanes with the lack of characters and authors he can relate to in school texts. That sounded familiar to McCottrell.  When she spoke with boys, she heard that school amounted to a seven-hour suppression of their personalities, interests, and voices — especially in reading and English classes, where black voices and black writers were missing.

“When kids have to pick a book for independent reading, they don’t relate to the characters in those classroom libraries,” she said. “It’s really hard coming to a class everyday when nothing relates to you.”

Parcc Scores

McCottrell decided to teach an optional African-American literature class every Friday during a weekly “intervention time” for students needing help in reading and math  About 17 boys showed up on the first day and read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose protagonist proclaims, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

McCottrell said many of the boys could expertly analyze the Harlem Renaissance classic, because they related to the idea of not being heard, seen, or understood for who they really are. The students offered examples like the portrayal of black men in the media.

“Many of them were saying things like, ‘I’m not a gangbanger, but this is what people think I am, because I’m dark or because I’m tall,’” she said. “They talked about it in the context of their teachers not knowing who they are.”

The class soon doubled as word of mouth drew others in. Jasean, a C student at the start of the class, joined them. He said he learned things he hadn’t been introduced to before. He read about segregation, speeches by Martin Luther King, and books like “Bud, Not Buddy,” about a 10-year-old black orphan during the Great Depression.

He said he rededicated himself to doing 100 minutes of reading a night and by the end of last school year earned an A in reading. He said he raises his hand to ask and answer questions in class more.

“It feels good,” he said.

Jasean’s grandmother, local school council member Regina Waters, praised McCottrell’s hands-on approach with students and her efforts to build one-on-one relationships with the boys.

“She’s upfront with the kids, and she knows all the kids by name which is unusual in the short time she’s been there,” Waters said.

McCottrell
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Marilyn McCottrell

Fuller’s boys closed the gap with girls in several ways over last school year.

They went from getting 70 percent of the Ds and Fs in English and math to 60 percent. In 2016-17, 46 percent of boys compared with 55 percent of girls were on track, meaning they earned a C or higher in reading and math and had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. In 2017-18, the percentage of boys on track increased by 23 percentage points compared to 19 points for girls. But sitting in her office at Fuller one day earlier this summer, McCottrell admitted something about her efforts for black boys.

“Nothing is solved,” she said.

Despite some progress last school year, when the 2018-19 school year starts, black boys at Fuller will still lag behind black girls. Forces outside of education like poverty, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination will continue to disadvantage black youth in ways that manifest in classrooms, where they land heaviest on black boys.

The odds aren’t yet even for black boys at McCottrell’s school, or at most schools across America. However, McCottrell believes that educators learned a lot that they can build on down the line.

Next year, McCottrell said she’s urging teachers to incorporate more of the black experience and black voices into lesson plans and to increase small-group instruction.

Teachers are having more data conferences with McCottrell and with each other to guide instruction and target specific students’ needs. McCottrell is also promoting more social-emotional learning techniques and restorative practices rather than punitive approaches to discipline, and incorporating cultural awareness and bias training into teachers’ professional development.

Marlene Aponte, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s director of coaching,  said that in some ways Fuller’s story resembles other schools’ in the years after turnarounds. After focusing on rigorous instruction and ambitious growth targets,“we’re starting to really hone in on some of the pieces that we may have overlooked, such as gender bias, gender equity, access in equity,” she said.

McCottrell wants her boys to have the tools to succeed. She knows there are some issues that her school won’t be able to solve.

But it’s a start.