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Does Race Matter in Student Discipline?

The so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" has been the subject of much media attention.  A new study of North Carolina elementary schools over several years claims that having a teacher of the same race reduces the likelihood of students being the subject of exclusionary school discipline ("Teacher Race and School Discipline," Education Next, Nov. 1). That finding, however, has several important caveats not given adequate attention.

The most glaring example is charter schools. Race matching there "appears unrelated to student discipline across all groups, suggesting that discipline dynamics may have been different in charters than in traditional public schools during the period we studied." That finding deserves far greater investigation than the report goes into. In fact, it calls into question the sweeping conclusion of the entire report.

I maintain that it's not the race of the teacher that matters but the motivation of the students.  Charter schools are populated by students of all races whose parents have chosen to enroll their children there.  If the conclusion of the study is valid, then a black male student who is taught by a white female teacher in a charter school should be the subject of exclusionary discipline.  But there is no convincing evidence that is the case. 

Although students may have better rapport with same-race teachers at the elementary school level and beyond, I believe too much weight is given to that factor.  At the high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career, one of my friends was a black social studies teacher who had been a major in the Air Force.  When busing began, he told me that he had more discipline problems with black male students than with any other students.

Before going down this race-matching road, I urge looking into other factors that are responsible for exclusionary school punishment.  The situation is different than the study's conclusion.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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