Student Behavior Doesn’t Explain Racial Differences in School Discipline

Last week, I posted about a new report highlighting the racial disparities in school expulsion and suspension in the South. While researching for that piece I came across another study (pg 480) that I really wanted to share:

In 1974 two researchers asked roughly 30 1st grade teachers to categorize their male students into four sub-groups prompted by four questions:

  • If you could keep one student another year for the sheer joy of it, whom would you pick? (Attachment)
  • If a parent were to drop in unannounced for a conference, whose child would you be least prepared to talk about? (Indifferent)
  • If you could devote all your attention to a child who concerned you a great deal, whom would you pick? (Concern)
  • If your class was to be reduced by one child, whom would you be relieved to have removed? (Rejection)

The results are telling:

Attachment group: Regarding boys in the attachment groups, the teachers made more positive comments about their clothing,… more often assigned them as leaders or classroom helpers,… high ability [student] who is well-adjusted to the school situation, conforms to the teacher’s rules and “rewards” the teacher by being somewhat dependent upon her and by doing well in his schoolwork.

Indifference group: Boys in the indifference group were described as more likely to . . . have a “blank” eye expression, . . . to have a disinterested or uncooperative parent, . . . to have failed to live up to the teachers’ initial expectations. . . . Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Readiness Test scores of these boys did not differ significantly from those of their classmates.

Concern group: Boys in the concern group were especially likely to be described as . . . having a speech impediment… being active and vivacious, seeking teacher attention,… needing readiness work, having generally poor oral and verbal skills, . . . and having generally low abilities…. [These children were] perceived as making legitimate demands because they generally conform to classroom rules but are in need of help due to low ability.

Rejection group: Boys in the rejection group were described as being more likely to be non-White than White, coming from intact families in which both parents were living, as being immature and not well-adjusted, as being independent, as being loud or disruptive in the classroom, as being rarely inactive or not vivacious, . . . as needing extra help because of generally low ability, as needing readiness work…. These children did not differ significantly from their classmates on the Metropolitan Readiness Test scores despite the teachers’ comments about low ability. (p. 132)

The fact that kids of color would disproportionately make up the rejection group raises alarm — in part because more than 40 years later we’re seeing the same pattern of rejection play out in classrooms across the country.

Note, on top of the findings revealed in the UPenn report, a 2014 study published by the Department of Education found that, on average, 16 percent of black students were suspended or expelled during the 2011-2012 school year. Native Americans were also disproportionately subject to suspension and expulsion — 7 percent of indigenous girls were suspended — a rate nearly 4 times higher than white girls.  Perhaps most shocking, black children constitute only a fifth of all preschool enrollees but made up 48 percent of the pre-k children with multiple out-of-school suspensions.

And again it’s important to emphasize that this isn’t explained by black and brown kids exhibiting disproportionately bad behavior. A literature review from researchers at Indiana University indicates that there is very little evidence that black kids are misbehaving at rates higher than their white peers. Their conclusion is quite clear:

Research has failed to support the common perception that racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline stem from issues of poverty and increased misbehavior among students of color. Racial disparities in discipline are likely to occur at all socio-demographic levels, and a variety of statistical approaches have failed to find evidence that students of color act out at higher rates that could justify differential punishment. Although more research on the actual causes of racial disparities in general is needed, findings thus far indicate that school-level variables such as the achievement gap; representativeness of faculty and students; classroom and office processes; and school climate represent a more fruitful set of variables to examine in addressing the discipline gap.

In fact, in one of the studies the include in their review they note that “White students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for more observable, objective offenses (e.g., smoking, vandalism), while Black students were referred more for behaviors requiring subjective judgment (e.g., disrespect, excessive noise).”


  1. What a terrific blog! As a white teacher in the south, this scares me. I have not dug into the research, but can I please offer a thought or two?
    The study here was from 1974. I know a lot of teachers who were not alive then.
    We need black teachers. Now. No, yesterday.
    As to why an individual teacher would hypothetically “choose” one student or another to be moved out of their class, please remember that teachers are like everybody else: We’d love things to be easier. I suspect the average (white) teacher is more likely able to empathize and perhaps more likely able to deal with the misbehavior of children with whom they share a common culture. It’s probably the same from the student perspective. Human nature.
    Teacher preparation programs do a very poor job of preparing new teachers for the discipline issues in the real classroom. In some areas (especially the south) there are huge teacher shortages, so states must import teachers. Hence the likelihood that a teacher will be out of their element.

    I won’t make excuses for individual or structural racism. Just thought I’d give another view.

    1. I totally hear you. Yes to black teachers, or better yet, yes to a super diverse (black, latino, native, white, asian) teaching and administrative system. And as I’ve been reading on the subject, many other researchers and teachers made the same point as you on the teacher prep and training. We could do a much better job of preparing teachers and equipping them with the skills they need. Also we don’t provide a ton of support to teachers — growing class sizes, lack of teacher aides, poor counselor-to-student ratios, etc… There’s a lot of work to do.

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