A racial disparity exists in American schools; African-American students receive disciplinary action more frequently than their peers.
The United States Department of Education and the Department of Justice both state that racial bias is behind this discipline gap, but University of Rochester Assistant Professor of Economics Josh Kinsler argues that the differences between school discipline policies explains this gap in its entirety.
Negative Impact of Suspensions
It makes sense that if a student is not in school, the student’s grades will suffer. This is a large part of the argument in the recently released U.S. Department of Education memo.
The idea is to close the achievement gap by closing the gap in disciplining students of different races. If some students lag behind their peers in academics, and also receive more frequent and/or severe disciplinary action, then, experts believe, reducing the disciplinary actions should result in a narrower gap in test scores as well.
The cost of a day of suspension may extend further than simply missed academic time – and can include both parental discipline and social isolation. When kids see suspensions as something to avoid rather than as a vacation from school, they’re more likely to behave better in class to avoid that consequence, when teachers set out discipline policies clearly. The better the class behaves, the more students can learn, so everyone benefits when kids avoid suspension by improving their own behavior.
Does Suspension Improve Academic Achievement for the Rest of the Class?
Kinsler asks what causes the decline in academic achievement – the suspension itself, or the disruptive behavior? He argues that a stricter discipline code will increase academic achievement, even if it does also increase the rate of out-of-school suspensions. Specifically, he states that “by imposing a strict discipline code, principals can reduce the overall number of student infractions, which increases achievement both by limiting the number of offending students and by reducing the negative spillovers associated with disruptive behavior.”
In other words, achievement falls when students act out. According to Kinsler, taking away the disobedient student through a suspension eliminates the distraction for the rest of the class, and reduces the temptation for other students to join in the disruptive behavior, thus raising achievement across the board – except, of course, for that disobedient student.
Closing the Discipline Gap
There are two possible ways that Kinsler suggests to both raise academic achievement and simultaneously close the discipline gap. Since it appears that in most cases discipline is equally applied across a single school without regard to race, the disparity occurs when looking at multiple schools in a single district.
- The first option is to impose a district wide rule-based discipline code. This would require all schools to impose the exact same disciplines for infractions across the board.
The issue with a rule-based discipline code is that the stricter discipline methods, including extended out-of-school suspension, are controversial, resulting in fewer and shorter suspensions. Therefore, the schools that serve predominately African-American students that subsequently lessen the severity of their discipline would see a decline in their academic achievement, thus widening the achievement gap instead of closing it.
- The other idea is to integrate schools evenly to allow for more homogeneous discipline rates across a district. In this case, African-American achievement would likely raise but previously higher performing students would see a drop in achievement due to the more evenly spread at-risk students.
Equal Discipline May Lower Academic Achievement
While it may seem intuitive that students should be disciplined equally, artificially closing the discipline gap without regard to actual behavior may create more problems than it solves. Focusing on ending racial discrimination in schools is a laudable goal – but applying discipline by the numbers, rather than based on individual situations, may not be the answer.© Copyright 2014 Jennifer Wagaman, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting