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Do Disparate Discipline Rates Confirm Racism?

When the Department of Education reported that black students are subject to much harsher discipline than white students for the same offenses, the immediate assumption was that racism was the reason ("Violence in the Halls, Disorder in the Malls," City Journal, Dec. 29, 2016).  But white students are disciplined at higher rates than Asian students.  Does that mean teachers are also biased against whites?  I submit there's another side to the story.

Teaching is arguably the most liberal profession in this country.  Schools of education are known for their bent in that direction, which is why teachers unions oppose draconian discipline policies.  It's partially seen in the 20 percent drop in the number of suspensions and expulsions between 2012 and 2014, and even more apparent in the enthusiasm for restorative justice programs.  If teachers were indeed racist as presumed, they wouldn't support these programs, preferring instead to push for traditional suspension and expulsion.

What bothers me the most about this entire issue, however, is the belief that blacks are a monolith. That is not true.  When court-ordered busing began in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember vividly the comment that one of my black students made to me before school as dozens of black students poured off the bus: "I feel bad for you with those kids. They're nothing but trouble." He knew from his experience that not all black students shared his desire to learn and excel. Perhaps he realized as well that when discipline breaks down, the classrooms that will likely suffer the most are filled with black students like himself.

The chaos in classrooms is not limited, of course, to black students. But inner-city schools with disproportionate numbers of black students from broken homes are the venue for most of the disruption. Their lack of respect for teachers explains why black students who desperately want to learn there are denied the opportunity to do so.  It also explains why these schools are so hard to staff.

Consider what happened when the St. Paul Public Schools district in 2011 implemented its "Strong Schools, Strong Communities" policy. The goal was to dramatically reduce the suspension rate for black students in order to bring equity to school discipline ("Mayhem in the Classroom," The Weekly Standard, Apr. 18, 2016).  But what followed was an unmitigated disaster.  Nine teachers at a middle school quit because students were out of control.  A high school teacher was assaulted by a student, resulting in a traumatic brain injury.

The real focus of the debate should be on learning instead of obsessing about disparate rates of discipline.  The military does not concern itself with racial differences in discipline. It cares only about performance.  Public schools should follow its example if they ever expect to provide all students with a quality education.

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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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