The Racial Gap in Learning, Discipline

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When is a three-day suspension simply three days out of school, and when is it the first step into the school-to-prison pipeline?

More and more, scholars and researchers are concluding that getting into trouble and having trouble learning are intertwined – most suspensions these days stem from relatively minor conduct infractions – but the experts haven’t decided whether the misbehavior or the trouble learning comes first. And they don’t know whether either or both contribute to black students being punished more frequently and more harshly than white students.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show clear disparities: A survey by the department’s Office for Civil Rights found black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students during the 2009-10 school year. The survey covered public schools attended by 85 percent of all students in the United States.

Other Education Department numbers show blacks lag about 5 percentage points behind whites on test scores, a gap that has remained fairly static since the late 1980s. For the previous 15 years, black students had been narrowing the gap.

Although relatively recent zero tolerance policies have been blamed for high dropout and incarceration rates for black youth, research has found that unequal treatment started long before those policies.

In their article “The Achievement Gap and the Discipline Gap: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” Anne Gregory, Russell Skiba and Pedro Noguera conclude that suspensions increase the disconnection between marginally achieving youth and their schools, causing the students to be “less invested in school rules and coursework and, subsequently, less motivated to achieve academic success.”

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