The Role of Teachers in Disciplinary Outcomes of Black Students

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 27, 2017

Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools at alarming rates. While only 16% of students in the U.S. are Black, they are assigned 32% of in-school suspensions, 33% of out-of-school suspensions, and 34% of expulsions. Broken down by gender, Black male students are about three times more likely than White male students to be suspended; and for Black female students, that rate is six times higher than that of White female students. Black students also account for 27% of law enforcement referrals and 31% of school-related arrests.

The situation is even worse in preschool. While 18% of preschool students are Black, this population accounts for 42% of out-of-school suspensions and 48% of multiple suspensions, meaning students were suspended for more than one day during the school year.

Black students with disabilities are more likely to be restrained by school staff members. Black students account for 36% of reported use of mechanical restraint while representing only 19% of all students with disabilities.

Black students are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates, leading to more time out of the classroom.
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This disproportionate use of discipline among students of color is well documented. Schools with large populations of students of color use harsher discipline tactics and are more likely to use metal detectors and uniformed security guards. Black students are also more likely to be suspended for minor offenses such as talking back to a teacher or writing on a desk. Black students who are second-generation immigrants and beyond are more likely to be punished than their White peers who display the same behaviors.

Teachers as Disciplinary Initiators

While there are a number of factors contributing to high rates of disciplinary actions among Black students that cannot possibly be addressed in this post, I would like to highlight the importance of teachers in determining student discipline outcomes. Teachers have quite a bit of discretion in determining whether and how students are disciplined because they are typically the initiators of the discipline process. Teachers can choose to deal with minor behavior issues in their classrooms in ways that don’t involve administrators or formal disciplinary actions. For example, if a student refuses to complete an assignment or disrupts his or her classmates, a teacher with strong classroom management skills can address the issue in the classroom rather than escalating the situation. While teachers do sometimes need to seek out more formal consequences in the case of non-negotiable infractions such as violence or weapon possession, teachers can manage the majority of student behaviors in ways that do not even invoke the discipline process, let alone lead to suspensions and other more serious consequences.

Teacher Race and Student Discipline

New evidence shows that teacher race plays a role in predicting the likelihood of Black student suspensions and expulsions. A study by American University researcher Constance A. Lindsay and University of California, Davis researcher Cassandra M. D. Hart looked at exclusionary discipline rates among Black students in North Carolina and found that students with Black teachers are less likely to be suspended and expelled than their Black peers with teachers of other races. Their findings were consistent across all grade levels, student gender, and income status. Lindsay and Hart found that Black teachers are less likely to refer Black students for disciplinary actions, especially in cases of perceived willful defiance and other subjective behaviors.

The study acknowledges that it is difficult to identify the specific reasons for this. It may be the case that Black teachers have stronger classroom management skills, that Black students respond differently to Black teachers, or that Black teachers are simply more tolerant of particular behaviors. Regardless, these findings are important because they identify a potential route to reducing Black students’ amount of time outside of the classroom and increasing their learning opportunities. Lindsay and Hart, however, caution against using these findings to justify segregated racial groupings. Instead, they recommend further work to determine what types of classroom management strategies Black teachers are using that may improve practices for all teachers.

Implications for Building a More Diverse Teaching Workforce

This study presents yet another reason to invest in a more diverse teaching workforce. Other research highlighted by the Green & Write blog (see here and here) has also demonstrated the importance of teachers of color. All students, regardless of race, rate teachers of color higher than White teachers, and Black teachers have higher expectations for Black students than White teachers. In 2014, minority students became the majority in the U.S., yet more than 80% of teachers are White. It’s time that we increase our efforts to recruit and retain more teachers of color.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.