TOPICS > Education

Report: Minority Students Face Harsher Discipline

March 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended than white students, according to a report released Tuesday by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. Jeffrey Brown discusses the disparities with Christopher Edley Jr. of the University of California, Berkeley and the Fordham Institute's Chester Finn Jr.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to education and the impact tougher discipline policies are having on minority students. It turns out young black and Hispanic students are far more likely to receive tough school punishments, including suspensions, than white students.

Jeffrey Brown has more on the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those were some of the findings in a report released today by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Overall, the report found African-American students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites. And 70 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement for disciplinary problems are black or Latino.

The report also looked at disparities in educational opportunities.

Speaking today at Howard University in Washington, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, for example, that schools with a high number of black and Hispanics are less likely to offer calculus.

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: Even in schools offering calculus, Hispanics make up 20 percent of those schools’ student body, with just 10 percent of the students actually enrolled in calculus. That under-representation has to end.

Overall, while black and Hispanics make up 44 percent of the students in this survey, they make up only 26 percent of students in gifted-and-talented programs. Something’s wrong with that picture as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we take a closer look at today’s now report with Christopher Edley, dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He also serves as co-chair of the Equity and Excellence Commission created by the Department of Education.

And Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, which focuses on the reform of elementary and secondary education, he served as assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration.

Well, Christopher Edley, I will start with you.

And start with the issue of discipline and punishment. What jumps out at you? What is important here?

CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, University California, Berkeley, Law School: Well, let me make three quick points.

I mean, it is — from a civil rights perspective, I think civil rights lawyers would look at these huge disparities that Arne Duncan was just talking about, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. They would say that this makes out a suspicious case that there may be a some kind of discrimination going on.

Certainly, if we saw these kinds of disparities in an employment setting, people would jump on it. But the second thing I would say is that — and more important than that is that the expulsions, the suspensions, these huge disparities in discipline show that we’re really not providing equal educational opportunity.

You can’t be providing opportunity if kids are kicked out of the school. And there are alternatives to those disciplinary measures. There are alternatives in terms of interventions, in training teachers to do a better job of classroom management, and interventions to figure out what’s going wrong in that kid’s life.

But the third and most important thing, I would say, apart from a civil rights enforcement issue, is that these kinds of disparities in discipline are highly correlated with tremendous disparities in academic achievement, in academic attainment, that if a school is not successful at figuring out why Jamal and Jose are acting out, the chances are pretty slim that they’re figuring out why Maria is two years behind in reading.

So, fixing our schools, supporting our teachers, intervening with our kids in a way that we’re searching for a strategy that works for each kid, that’s the civil rights issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Chester Finn, does it rise to that level for you? What kind of implications do you see?

CHESTER FINN, Thomas B. Fordham Institute: Well, I’m glad they’re collecting the data, which hasn’t been happening for a while. And a lot of the data certainly are alarming.

But it would certainly be a mistake to see a racist behind every tree in American education. The schools are not doing a good job with poor and minority kids. And we have known that from many indicators, including those that Dean Edley has referred to.

And certainly one symptom of school problems are these disparate discipline rates. But we have to also keep in mind that teachers and principals are trying to run an orderly school, where kids who are serious about studying are not disrupted. And it would be a mistake to keep in class a kid who was a problem child as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you — just stop you right there and stay with you. . .

CHESTER FINN: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . because one of the questions I assume this raises goes to the so-called zero tolerance policies in many schools. . .

CHESTER FINN: Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . where an automatic suspension comes for a variety of misdeeds.

CHESTER FINN: Some of which don’t deserve it, some of which do.

If a youngster is found in school with a loaded gun, for example, I think that is an instant suspension or expulsion cause. On the other hand, a kid who talks back to a teacher wouldn’t qualify or shouldn’t qualify for zero tolerance, should be given a good dressing-down and told to behave better.

So I think that, as with zero tolerance laws in the larger society, this can be overdone in school. And, frankly, some educators hide behind these zero tolerance policies, because it means they don’t have to make the decision about what to do with a kid. They can just say, the rules compel me to suspend you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Dean Edley, when you broaden it out to these other disparities — and you already started to do that — you get data like this, what does one do with it? What happens next or should happen next?

CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Just to be clear — and I, by the way, agree with everything that Chester just said — if schools are throwing kids out, suspending, expelling, this kind of discipline, then it’s absolutely certain that you’re driving those kids away from a commitment to academic achievement.

And, in that sense, this is just not good for society. We’re focused on — try to improve not just the equity, but the overall excellence of our schools, because we care about the opportunity for individual kids, but also because we know that America as a whole can’t have the security, can’t have the prosperity we want if we continue to run dropout factories as high schools and discard 30, 40 percent of our human capital.

So, it’s the smoking gun aspect of this that I think is most instructive for those us who are concerned with school reform as a whole. Interestingly, as bad as zero tolerance policies are — and I think they are terrible and I think they’re a civil rights problem — in schools where there is a zero tolerance policy, the disparities between minors and white kids shrink.

So, in fact, it’s the discretion that’s used in the context of discipline or in the context of referring kids to special education where implicit bias may play a role, where the inability, the professional undertraining, if you will, of teachers may come to the fore as a factor in creating the different treatment of kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

So — well, Chester Finn, let me — the same question. What does one do with this data at the local level or at a national level. Arne Duncan said — was quoted today as, this is really about self-analysis. He was suggesting administrators and teachers look in the mirror to see the good, bad and ugly.

CHESTER FINN: And of course they should. And of course data are valuable for people running schools and school systems.

Some of this, though, is not within the control of the schools. Some of the kids who are being disciplined are coming from troubled homes and troubled neighborhoods, and bringing a host of problems with them into the school, the school, which has a — actually occupies a very small fraction of their lives, the school cannot solve all by itself.

So I don’t want to lay the entire burden here on schools. There’s larger societal issues here, too. You can look at criminal incarceration rates in the justice system, too, and see similar disparities. But some people do commit crimes. And, just similarly, some kids don’t behave well in school.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re talking — you’re referring to disparities that go beyond the punishment question.

CHESTER FINN: Way beyond the punishment question.

They also go to the academic achievement question, as Chris Edley was saying, to the teacher quality question, to whether you learned what you should have in sixth grade, in order that you can successful in seventh grade, because, if you’re not successful in seventh grade, you’re more likely to act out. And if you act out, you’re more likely to be thrown out, which is, of course, a vicious cycle that begins way back probably in first grade.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to stop there.

But, Chester Finn, Christopher Edley, thanks so much.

CHESTER FINN: Pleasure.