discipline dispute

As national debate over discipline heats up, new study finds discrimination in student suspensions

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Black students in Louisiana are suspended for slightly longer than white students after being involved in the same fight, according to new research that adds to a roiling national debate about school discipline.

The study comes as the U.S. Department of Education appears to be considering rescinding Obama-era guidance on school discipline. Its findings — that black students are treated more harshly — bolster the case of civil rights groups that want the guidelines to remain, noting that suspension rates for America’s black and poor students remain disproportionately high.

“Given that we find that direct discrimination occurs in this context, with a black and white student receiving different punishments for the same exact incident, it seems likely that direct discrimination would [also] occur where discipline disparities are less visible,” the researchers write.

Still, the difference between suspensions given to black and white students was quite small, amounting to a fraction of a school day.

The research, released by the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University, used a trove of discipline data from Louisiana that stretched from 2001 to 2014. Consistent with past research, the study finds that black and poor students have substantially higher suspension rates than white and more affluent peers.

Figuring out why is tricky. Is it because certain groups of students behave differently, or because teachers and administrators respond differently to the same behavior?

The study can’t rule out the possibility that the small difference in length of suspensions was due to factors like whether one student instigated the fight. But the researchers argue that a fight between two students is an objective offense where school officials would be expected to treat participants similarly. The fact that even in this context there is evidence of bias, however small, is worrisome, they say.

The study is directly relevant to the debate about the 2014 federal guidance, which warned schools that the Department of Education might initiate civil rights investigations “based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information.” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said she was “looking closely at” this guidance, and conservatives have urged her to scrap it altogether on the grounds that it has contributed to disorder in schools.

Much of the debate turns on how to interpret well-documented disparities in suspension rates.

Mike Petrilli, a critic of federal efforts to monitor school discipline and the head of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, analogizes the debate to the discussion around the test-score “achievement gap.”

“Nobody would say that we’re going to look at these achievement gaps and say that all of the achievement gap is because teachers are racist,” he said. “We might say part of that is.”

Petrilli suggests that the guidance has schools fearing that they risk being accused of discrimination based just on suspension differences across student groups.

Catherine Lhamon, who served as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the education department under Obama and is now the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that guidance doesn’t suggest that suspension rates should be interpreted as proof of discrimination. “Data alone is not evidence of discrimination,” she said, but it “is relevant to an inquiry.”

The Tulane study marks an attempt to see if discrimination really is at play. The researchers compared the length of suspensions given to black and white students for the same infraction in Louisiana. Black students, they found, are suspended for longer — 2.6 school days, compared to 2.2 days. This gap shrinks but still exists when comparing black and white students in the same school, grade, and school year.

That suggests, but does not prove, that there is discrimination involved in those decisions.

The researchers then examined suspensions after a fight between a black and a white student. They found that, even controlling for past incidents of fighting, black students receive longer suspensions — though the difference was very small, equivalent to black students facing one additional day of suspension for every 20 fights.

Past studies have come to conflicting results on the question of bias: Consistent with the theory of bias, black students are more likely to be suspended for those discretionary offenses than objective behaviors. Black teachers are also less likely to suspend black students compared to white teachers and perceive behavior of black students differently.

On the other side, there is evidence that the race-based gap in discipline is accounted for by past behavioral issues (though if those prior behaviors were reported with bias, that would invalidate these results).

The Tulane study points out that even if discipline disparities are not caused by direct bias at the school level, they likely are due to broader societal issues, including long-standing discrimination.

Even if schools are responding to genuine differences in behavior across groups of students, the authors write, “this exonerates neither schools nor broader societal forces from contributing to varying levels of misbehavior.”

As DeVos reconsiders, the debate intensifies

Meanwhile, Petrilli says he is trying to reduce the intensity of the debate, writing a blog post titled, “In search of common ground on school discipline reform.”

The debate seems to be growing more polarized instead.

Just recently, Petrilli organized a visit for teachers who said school discipline reforms had led to chaos in the classroom to speak to leaders at the U.S. Department of Education. Katherine Kersten, who wrote an essay critical of discipline reform efforts titled “No Thug Left Behind,” helped connect Petrilli to Minnesota teachers for the visit.

(Kersten said she didn’t write the title, though didn’t see a problem with it. “Some children are thugs,” she said in an interview.)

And an op-ed in the New York Daily News by Max Eden and Robert Pondiscio linked school discipline reform efforts in New York City to the recent stabbing death of a high school student. (There’s no evidence that changes in discipline policies led to this fatality, though they point to surveys showing a decline in students who felt safe at the school.)

Progressives are also on high alert about the Trump administration’s record on civil rights.

In an op-ed earlier this year, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan linked student suspensions to a broader critique of the administration, writing, “Leaving enforcement of civil rights laws to states will breed chaos, undermine the education of millions of children, and subject students of every age to abuse, neglect, indifference and outright racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant hostility.”

While conservative critics of the discipline reform efforts have embraced teachers who say the policies have been poorly implemented, national teachers unions say they support the existing guidance.

“Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same infractions,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “We must confront the racial bias that underlies that reality, which the current guidance attempts to do.” Weingarten has written about her own change of heart about harsh discipline policies.

Harry Lawson, the director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, also said the union was opposed to rescinding guidance, but said some places that have implemented discipline reforms have hit challenges.

Even supporters have acknowledged as much. A report by the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that backs reduction in exclusionary discipline, for instance, found that the Miami-Dade school district’s promise to eliminate student suspensions led to the creation of “student success centers” that became “little more than warehouses for students who have been removed from school.”

Lawson said the key is training and resources to implement alternatives to suspensions. He said the NEA sometimes hears feedback from members akin to the teachers from Minnesota who spoke to Department of Education officials — but that they weren’t representative.

“What we also hear more of is a recognition from our members that there is something wrong [with exclusionary discipline],” he said. “And generally what they are asking is, what do we do … and can you all support us?”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.