Big news today regarding a study issued by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. The main takeaway points are as follows:
(1) a large number of students are subjected to suspension or expulsion.
(2) a disproportionate number of students punished by suspension or expulsion are black or Hispanic.
(3) suspended students are at elevated risk for dropout and other negative outcomes.
If you look at these points without thinking, the obvious conclusion (which becomes even more obvious when you look at the name of the organization that conducted the study) is that school discipline is a miscarriage of justice that contributes to the poor educational outcomes of disadvantaged groups.
If you jump to that obvious conclusion and think a bit more, you realize that the implication is that deans of students -- or whichever school administrator is responsible for meting out punishments to misbehaving students -- must be virulently biased against these disadvantaged groups.
Both the obvious conclusion and its corollary are wrong. That is the conclusion of research by Josh Kinsler at the University of Rochester, who conducted a much more careful study of school discipline in North Carolina public schools. Here are the real takeaway points you should remember any time you think about school discipline.
(1) School discipline officers are not racially biased. Blacks and Hispanics tend to be suspended more often because they attend schools where discipline is applied more strictly across the board. The strictest schools are those that serve the most high-risk student populations. They punish harshly to deter bad behavior.
(2) Suspending misbehaving students improves the learning environment for others. The distractions caused by misbehaving students detract from the achievement of others. Suspensions are not a socially wasteful denial of education. By removing select students from the learning environment, they improve it for others.
(3) The students subjected to suspension are, in fact, not harmed by their removal from school. For most suspended students, poor academic performance predates their disciplinary experience by a matter of years. If legislatures passed laws banning suspension, these students would continue to drop out at high rates and do poorly in school.
Josh's work goes so far as to argue that a relaxation of school discipline standards -- the recommendation implied by the Justice Center's study -- would in fact widen the black-white test score gap. The relaxation of standards would lead to a higher proportion of disruptive students in schools serving minority populations, and their presence would drag down average test scores in those schools.