Discipline disparities reveal misunderstanding

One of the more troubling headlines in education is that black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers (“Why Are Black Students Punished So Often? Minneapolis Confronts a National Quandary,” The New York Times, Mar. 19).  The reflexive explanation is that teachers are racially biased.

There are some teachers who fall into that category.  But I think there is a far better explanation.  I maintain that the variations mostly arise from differences in student behavior.  If prejudice is indeed the reason, then why are white students disciplined at higher rates than Asian students?  Are schools also anti-white as well?

The lack of respect for teachers among students of all races today is appalling.  When I was in public schools on Long Island, N.Y. decades ago, teachers acted in loco parentis.  If any student continued to misbehave after a warning, the teacher took the miscreant by the arm and marched the offender out of the classroom. Maintaining order was essential to teaching.  No one question their authority.

I attribute the change largely to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s.  Supported by philanthropic behemoths, students began to challenge even minor discipline rules.  Stung by lawsuits, schools began to walk on eggs.  The landmark case in this regard was Goss v. Lopez.  In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court gave “every schoolchild the power to contest in court any decision made by his teacher.”  Only Justice Lewis Powell understood the consequences when he warned that students who fail to learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped throughout life.

We’re now reaping what the high court’s decision sowed.  The sad part is that black students who want to learn – and they are in the overwhelming majority – are denied their right to do so by the behavior of the few.  I think it’s time to focus on that injustice.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



4 Replies to “Discipline disparities reveal misunderstanding”

  1. Agree that minor but endemic student misbehavior is a huge problem today, particularly in the inner-city/low-SES neighborhood schools. Mildly disagree that the SCt’s students’-rights decisions are principally responsible for the increase in misbehavior.

    If the SCt’s decisions were driving the misbehavior, the most misbehavior would be in the higher-SES schools where the students (and parents) are more legally sophisticated and better able to go to court to challenge discipline. However, we see the exact opposite. The most misbehavior occurs in the very-low-SES schools where, as a practical matter, few students or parents have the means to mount a legal challenge to discipline.

    Central admins have, over the decades, become increasingly gun-shy re imposing discipline to enforce reasonable behavior standards. And, no doubt, the threat of litigation has contributed to this tendency. However, social and political trends have played a larger role than the threat of litigation in influencing central admins’ attitudes towards discipline and behavior standards. Liberals generally and teachers/administrators particularly have, over the decades, increasingly viewed low-SES/inner-city minority students as victims of societal forces beyond the students’ control. They then view minor misbehavior by these students as the inevitable result of those societal forces and believe it unfair to discipline the students for the misbehavior that is not the students’ fault. In school systems/cities where the majority of voters are minority, it becomes politically very dangerous for elected officials and candidates to call for increased discipline in the schools — any public figure who does so runs the high risk of being labeled racist or, at least, insensitive to the real-life problems of the low-SES/minority students/families.

    A possibly even more important cause of the minor but endemic misbehavior in the low-SES/inner-city schools is the counterproductive movement to eliminate tracking in the neighborhood schools. By definition, when there is no tracking, most low-SES/inner-city classrooms will have students functioning far below grade level, at grade level and above grade level. Whatever the teacher does in such classrooms, many — sometimes most — of the students will be frustrated or bored much of the time. This is, of course, a recipe for minor but endemic misbehavior. As the percentage of students functioning far below grade level increases, unless the teacher is freed from curriculum requirements to teach a far-below-grade-level curriculum, the percentage of students who find the academic work to be frustrating will likewise increase. Minor but endemic misbehavior will necessarily follow.


  2. LaborLawyer: Yet Success Academy charter schools in New York City, which enroll overwhelming numbers of black and Hispanic students from low-income families, don’t have a problem with discipline. I think the reason is that parents deliberately choose these schools and sign a contract agreeing to abide by the rules. (Of course, students who don’t are pushed out.) My point is that parental involvement is crucial for maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning. Traditional public schools by law must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of interest or motivation. It would be interesting to conduct an experiment comparing schools when extraneous factors are controlled.


    1. I think I’ve read critiques of Success Academy arguing that Success Academy routinely expels or counsels-out a relatively large percentage of its initial enrollees. That obviously would go a long way towards minimizing misbehavior. And, as you note, Success Academy is not enrolling a representative cross-section of low-SES students but rather is enrolling mostly/only low-SES students whose parents are more concerned/functional than the average low-SES parents. I’d go further and argue that the Success Academy parents, although low-income and/or minority, often have parenting attitudes resembling those of higher-SES parents — that is, that they provide more and higher-quality adult-child verbal interaction from birth through kindergarten so that their children start kindergarten with the vocabulary, cognitive skills and neural development usually seen in higher-SES children. If so, this would reduce the percentage of Success Academy students who find at-grade-level instruction to be very difficult/frustrating.


  3. LaborLawyer: Success Academy also has only two high schools. Whether it can post the same outcomes as it expands its network is unclear. More to the point, however, is that Success does not backfill when seats become open. Traditional public schools by law must enroll all who show up at any time during the school year. Self- selection plays a huge role in its results. When parents actively opt for its schools and agree to abide by its rules, they are not much different from upper SES parents.


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