Teachers Need New Tools to Make School Discipline Fair

Teachers Need New Tools to Make School Discipline Fair
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School safety is, rightly, a key priority and responsibility for teachers and school leaders as they work to foster a school climate that is welcoming, protective, and supportive of all students. Disciplinary policies are at the nexus of our ability to foster this school climate. Effective and equitable discipline practices not only keep students safe; they can also contribute to a learning environment that promotes engagement, trust, and academic achievement among all students.

In many schools, however, exclusionary measures and other forms of harsh discipline have become the norm rather than a last resort to protect students from threats to their safety. Minor misbehaviors — such as dress code violations, inappropriate language, and disrespect — now routinely result in exclusion from the classroom or school. Too often, these disciplinary measures substitute for approaches and strategies that help students improve their behavior and address underlying causes.

Widespread disparities in disciplinary outcomes — which manifest prominently in terms of race, gender, and disability status — have been well documented by researchers and policymakers. Despite decades of concern about this issue, and policies and professional development aimed at reducing these disparities, the gap has actually increased. Black students, especially black males, continue to be significantly more likely to be suspended than their peers. Native Americans, Hispanics, and students with disabilities also face a much higher risk of suspension, while white students are suspended at the lowest rates.

Although we’ve been aware of the problem of disciplinary disparities for years, there has been comparatively less focus on identifying the evidence-based approaches that actually lead to more equitable disciplinary practices and can begin to close these discipline gaps. This is troubling because it indicates that we have considerably more work to do in preparing educators to equitably implement practices that prioritize education and inclusion over punitive and exclusionary disciplinary measures like office disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. 

Fortunately, we are seeing some exciting progress in the development of more fair and effective discipline practices. Later this month, School Psychology Review will release a special issue highlighting a new wave of approaches that my colleagues and I at the Curry School of Education have been examining. And there is some good news to share when it comes to research-based strategies that can reduce unfair, exclusionary disciplinary practices.

In particular, culturally responsive behavior management practices are at the forefront of a new generation of these promising, evidence-based approaches that hold the potential to minimize and ultimately eliminate significant disparities in discipline rates. New findings from our studies in the Review show, for example, that coaching elementary and middle school teachers in cultural responsiveness and student engagement strategies can significantly lower rates of discipline referrals for black students, who might have otherwise been subject to suspension or exclusion from the classroom.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this work. Disparities in school discipline practices have the potential to exacerbate academic achievement gaps that already separate students along the lines of race, gender, and disability status. Students who are excluded from school suffer in terms of academic performance and are more likely to fall behind or, especially at the high school level, drop out of school entirely. Moreover, the frequent and disproportional use of exclusionary discipline does not just harm the students who are removed from the classroom or the school. It also can have negative impacts on school climate and academic performance school-wide. Schools with high suspension rates, for example, tend to have diminished levels of student engagement.

The disparities in disciplinary outcomes that we see in school systems across the country lay bare an uncomfortable truth: Teachers and administrators are not well equipped to manage student behavior in ways that are equitable and that contribute to a positive, inclusive learning environment. 

It is increasingly clear that ongoing coaching and professional development opportunities that equip teachers to implement culturally responsive practices in their classrooms — as well as other approaches, like restorative justice programs, that seek to engage students rather than exclude them from school — are essential to preparing the educator workforce. Our teachers can then have the tools to support all students in the efforts to bridge the achievement gap and counteract disproportional disciplinary outcomes. 

After all, once it is taken away, time in the classroom cannot be returned.

Dr. Catherine Bradshaw is a professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

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