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Can Research Offer Answers for the 'Discipline Disparities' Debate?

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This week we are hearing from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans). This post is by Nathan Barrett, ERA-New Orleans' Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow. His research focuses on K-12 education including student equity, school reform, and teachers.

The recent release of the GAO's report on student discipline has added more fuel to an already heated debate about whether the Department of Education should rescind the 2014 Dear Colleague Letter providing federal guidance on school discipline. Citing evidence of racial disparities in the incidence of exclusionary discipline, the letter provides a framework for how disparities can be identified as well as guidance on how schools can reduce these disparities should they exist.

For some, the letter represents an example of federal overreach suggesting further that, by reducing the use of exclusionary discipline in an attempt to comply, schools have created unsafe learning environments. For others, the letter was an important step in the effort to address long-standing disparities that disproportionately exclude students of color from the classroom.  

At the heart of the debate are issues of racial bias and their intersection with the mechanisms within disciplinary processes that may create disparities. When a student misbehaves, an adult interprets that behavior and then translates the behavior into an infraction as defined by a student handbook or code of conduct. From there, an adult then determines whether there will be a formal punishment and what that punishment will be.

While racial bias could play a role in any step of the discipline process, the debate often focuses on the interpretation of student behavior. The unfortunate reality is that we do not have accurate, objective data on the true behaviors of students, and as a result, those on both sides of the discipline disparities debate cannot find definitive support in the research. This leads to the selective use of studies and broad interpretation of descriptive data, the GAO report being the latest example.

Those who oppose the Dear Colleague letter and its guidance suggest that disparities are not the result of disparate interpretations of behaviors, or bias in other steps of the discipline process, but the result of students behaving differently. They further suggest that life circumstances--like poverty status and being raised in a single parent household--are not evenly distributed by race and that students' life circumstances contribute to the differences in behavior that lead to discipline disparities. By limiting educators' ability to discipline students, they advise that the guidance will make classrooms unsafe and infringe on the remaining students' educational experiences.

Those who support the Dear Colleague letter find that the guidance provides sound recommendations on record-keeping, training, and other strategies aimed at reducing disparities. They propose that even the most well-intentioned teachers can allow implicit biases to affect the ways in which they treat students of different races. Citing various studies, they suggest that these biases, if left unaddressed, can lead to lower academic achievement, higher likelihood of dropping out, and other negative outcomes. They also question the possibility that following the letter's guidance will reduce classroom safety, as many behavioral infractions are for nonviolent behavior.

In the end, the truth is likely somewhere in between. In Thursday's post, I will address specific studies often cited in the debate and provide a deeper look into how we think about and what we can reasonably expect from research on exclusionary and alternative forms of student discipline.

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