Want to Address School Discipline Disparities? Don’t Ignore Racial and Cultural Differences in the Classroom
Want to Address School Discipline Disparities? Don’t Ignore Racial and Cultural Differences in the Classroom


Want to Address School Discipline Disparities? Don’t Ignore Racial and Cultural Differences in the Classroom

By Richard O. Welsh and Shafiqua Little
Richard O. Welsh is an assistant professor in the Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy department at the University of Georgia. Shafiqua Little is a Ph.D. candidate in the Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy department at the University of Georgia.

Note: In the following piece, Welsh and Little summarize findings from their peer-reviewed article “The School Discipline Dilemma: A Comprehensive Review of Disparities and Alternative Approaches,” which was published online September 17 in Review of Educational Research. Selected references are provided at the end of the piece.

The issue of disparities in exclusionary discipline outcomes—suspensions, expulsions and assignments to alternative schools—is perhaps the most heated and controversial in education policy and equity conversations about K–12 schools. The disparities are well-documented. Students with disabilities, non-heterosexual youth, low-income, minority (especially Black), and male students experience suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than their peers. In 2015-16, students lost 11 million days of instruction due to suspensions, and the most recent evidence confirms that suspensions lead to lower student achievement.

As we found in a systematic literature review of school discipline research from the past 27 years, no single factor explains discipline disparities. The evidence indicates that student behavior, student characteristics, and school-level variables all contribute to disciplinary outcomes. The school discipline dilemma is not solely about student misbehavior and teachers’ behavior management skills but also about how learning takes place in classrooms and schools. It relates to other issues as well such as identification with cultural norms.

The evidence suggests that discipline disparities may be explained more by the behavior of adults—teachers and principals in schools—than by student misbehavior. This is because subjectivity is central in discipline disparities. The disciplinary challenges frequently faced by schools stem from less severe behaviors such as tardiness and absenteeism rather than more severe behaviors such as drug or weapon possession. The vast majority of disciplinary infractions for which students receive an office discipline referral, suspension, or expulsion rely on the subjective judgments of adults.

Research has largely dispelled the notion that racial differences in receiving exclusionary discipline are due to higher rates of involvement in misbehavior that result in disciplinary outcomes. The evidence indicates that the higher rates of exclusionary discipline experienced by Black students are not the result of higher rates of misbehavior or these students engaging in a greater variety of infractions or more severe infractions.

Although several studies have found that problem behaviors and attitudes were strong predictors of receiving some form of disciplinary action, misbehavior (which ranges from incivility to physical assault) does not fully explain the rates or disparities in exclusionary disciplinary consequences. The research also shows that White students are referred more than Black students for objective behaviors (e.g., smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language) and Black students are referred more than White students for subjective behaviors (e.g., defiance to authority, disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering).

Although student socio-economic status (SES) is predictive of receiving exclusionary discipline, several studies have largely dispelled the notion that discipline disparities are driven by poor kids misbehaving. Poverty, at the student or school level, does not solely explain the rates of and disparities in exclusionary discipline. Race is a significant predictor of receiving exclusionary discipline after accounting for SES. For instance, Black students from low SES are more likely to be suspended when compared to poor White students and Black students with middle and high SES are more likely to be suspended than White students with similar SES.

Recent evidence suggests that classroom- and school-level variables are the strongest predictors of disciplinary outcomes. Teachers are generally responsible for initiating the discipline process. Teacher-student racial matches, classroom management skills, teacher discretion, and teachers’ perceptions and expectations play a key role in explaining discipline disparities. In U.S. public education, there is a stark contrast between teachers and students. The vast majority of teachers are White, middle-class women; the student population is diverse and continues to grow more so. 

Teacher-student racial matches are associated with lower rates of suspensions and expulsions for Black students. It is plausible to surmise that teachers’ perceptions along racial lines may contribute to discipline disparities. For example, teachers who believe that Black students act differently because their culture is deficient in some way may have different expectations for Black students and students in other groups. There is evidence that teacher responses to misbehavior may be driven by teachers’ racial perceptions—teachers were more likely to deem students’ behavior as indicative of a pattern if the students were Black, and misconduct from Black students was approached more harshly than identical misconduct from White students.

It is clear that, whether for malicious or benign reasons, student misbehavior is addressed differently across racial/ethnic student subgroups. Albeit, our review of the existing research on school discipline finds no “smoking gun” or evidence of discrimination on the part of teachers and school leaders.

There is a growing body of research on implicit bias—bias that operates below conscious awareness and without intentional control—in criminal justice settings; however, the literature in educational settings is not as robust or definitive. Although there is no definitive evidence of teacher bias driving disciplinary decisions, when one begins to connect the existing empirical dots, the picture is concerning and highlights the need to support educators to build stronger relationships with students and enhance their classroom management skills.

School characteristics such as demographic composition (especially percentage of black students), average school achievement, and principals’ perspectives also partly explain the rates of and disparities in disciplinary outcomes.

There is substantial variation in the disciplinary philosophies of principals within the same school district and rates of suspension are linked to principals’ attitudes. The evidence suggests that principals who consider context and have a clear philosophy of discipline apply exclusionary discipline less often than do principals who strictly adhere to disciplinary policy. Evidence on the role of school climate, while limited, also suggests that perceptions of the racial climate at schools significantly contribute to discipline disparities.

Several alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline policies and practices have emerged in recent decades at the federal, state, and district levels. Program-based approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices (RP) focus on initiatives that (a) try to improve school culture for an entire school and (b) provide school personnel with skills in behavior management and student discipline. These approaches differ from policy-based approaches, which focus on changing the policies that guide school and district responses to behaviors.

In a growing number of studies, the implementation of PBIS has been associated with decreases in office referrals, suspensions, and misbehavior. But studies that have broken down disciplinary outcomes by student subgroup have found that PBIS did not benefit all students equally and did not reduce racial disparities in disciplinary outcomes.

In other words, Black students in schools with PBIS still experienced a disproportionate rate of suspensions compared to all other ethnicities. In response to these findings, culturally responsive models of PBIS are increasingly being implemented and show some promise of reducing discipline disparities. 

Similarly, the existing evidence links RP to decreases in office discipline referrals and suspensions, but there is little evidence that RP is effective in reducing racial and gender discipline disparities.

The My Teacher Partner Project (MTPP)—a teacher training program that targets student-teacher interactions as well as student engagement by nurturing teacher reflection and improvements in emotional support, classroom organization, and teaching support—offers a spark of hope. Teachers who matriculated through MTPP issued fewer office referrals than teachers who were not a part of the program, and teachers in the MTPP issued office referrals for White and Black students at equal rates. There was also a smaller Black-White discipline disparity for Blacks enrolled in the classes with MTPP teachers.

But overall, program-based interventions do not appear to have greater benefits for the groups, such as Black students, most in need of reprieve. This is especially true among lower achieving students, who are more likely to receive exclusionary discipline.

Why are alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline not reducing discipline disparities?

The evidence indicates that implementation and the degree of cultural responsiveness are key factors in the effectiveness of alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline. Renowned school discipline scholars such as Anne Gregory and Russell Skiba have highlighted the central role of cultural conscious implementation in discipline reforms. 

The vast majority of the alternative approaches are most concerned with helping students assimilate to school culture rather than crafting the school culture to fit the social, emotional, and cultural needs of students. Schools focus more on achieving behavior management through conformity and less on addressing the cultural clashes that may be driving discipline disparities.

The topic of race tends to play a larger role in the discussion of discipline disparities than in the discussion of alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline. To date, interventions have given insufficient attention to issues of race and culture and have focused predominantly on student misbehavior. There appears to be a preference for race-neutral policies. The role of race should not be overlooked or under-discussed in crafting solutions to the discipline dilemma.

The underlying causes of the disparities in disciplinary outcomes are numerous, layered, and multi-dimensional. Thus, the school discipline dilemma and its solutions are, in many ways, byproducts of larger issues in K–12 schooling, such as teacher diversity and the cultural capacity of teachers.

Although the school discipline debate has grown increasingly contentious, our hope is that a return to the empirical evidence brings us closer to reducing discipline disparities and improving student outcomes. Honest conversations about the role of race and culture in education and society is a precursor to solving the conundrum.

Selected References

Anyon, Y., Gregory, A., Stone, S. I., Farrar, J., Jenson, J. M., McQueen, J., Downing, B., Greer, E., Simmons, J. (2016). Restorative interventions and school discipline sanctions in a
large urban school district. American Education Research Journal, 53, 1663–1697.

Bradshaw, C. P., Mitchell, M. M., O’Brennan, L. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Multilevel
exploration of factors contributing to the overrepresentation of Black students in
office disciplinary referrals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 508–520.

Bradshaw, C. P., Waasdorp, T. E., & Leaf, P. J. (2015). Examining variation in the
impact of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports: Findings from
a randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Journal of Educational Psychology,
107, 546–557. doi:10.1037/a0037630

Skiba, R. J., Chung, C. G., Trachok, M., Baker, T. L., Sheya, A., & Hughes, R. L.
(2014). Parsing disciplinary disproportionality: Contributions of infraction, student,
and school characteristics to out-of-school suspension and expulsion. American
Educational Research Journal
, 51, 640–670. doi:10.3102/0002831214541670

Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the
discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher, 39, 59–68. doi

Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Mediratta, K. (2017). Eliminating disparities in school
discipline: A framework for intervention [Special issue on equity in school]. Review
of Research in Education
, 47, 253–278.

Golann, J. W. (2015). The paradox of success at a no-excuses school. Sociology of
, 88, 103–119. doi:10.1177/003804071456786