What Teachers and the Public Think About Race and School Discipline

What Teachers and the Public Think About Race and School Discipline
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

School discipline has long been at or near the top of the list of public concerns about education. Indeed, polls show that student discipline was the public’s top concern 50 years ago, in 1969, and for 15 of the next 16 years. More recently, education reformers’ concerns have focused more on how students are disciplined than how disciplined they are. Arguments that suspensions are unproductive, harmful to recipients, and unfairly administered by race led the Obama administration to tackle the issue through 2014 federal guidance encouraging leaders to seek alternatives to exclusionary discipline and reduce racial disparities in suspensions. This was criticized as a top-down overreach, and subsequently scrapped by the Trump administration without any further substantive action. Despite the federal walk-back, pressure for centralized solutions remains, as evidenced by the pending California legislation that would ban all suspensions for disruptive behavior.

That noted, polls also reveal a great deal of support for alternatives to suspension. Fordham finds that 81% of teachers view restorative justice practices as somewhat effective alternatives, and PDK finds that two-thirds of all adults see mediation as more effective than detention or suspension. One of the drivers of this appeal for alternatives is pronounced distrust of disciplinary practices. PDK finds that only 59% of all parents trust their child’s school to administer discipline fairly—a number that falls to a mere 40% among black parents. This racial disparity is understandable given that 15% of black parents report having a child suspended or expelled from schools, double the percentage of white parents. These views are aligned with the pressure in education reform circles to move away from suspension and reflect some sympathy for the Obama and California regulatory moves.

Despite the support for alternatives, teachers believe that suspensions should play a role in school discipline, and may not currently be employed often enough. Fordham found that more than four in ten teachers believe out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are not used enough, while just one in ten believed they are used too much. More than 80% of teachers agree that out-of-school suspensions are useful for communicating the seriousness of a student’s infractions to parents, and for removing disruptive students from the classroom so that others can learn.

While recent surveys suggest parents and teachers like the idea of moving away from suspensions, polls also indicate an awareness of their utility for serious infractions. Fordham found just 12% of teachers  believe suspension is warranted at the first instance of a verbal disrespect offense, but when the disrespect is repeated 64% favor suspension—a response California is about to outlaw. When it comes to serious offences—those involving weapons, drugs, and some assaults—support for strict zero-tolerance suspension policies is twice as large as opposition.

This nuance makes sense. Concerns about harmful suspensions must be weighed against the damage their blanket removal might pose to safe and orderly schools. Teachers recognize this tension, as evidenced by their beliefs on why suspension rates have fallen. While 46% of teachers attributed suspension declines to alternative disciplinary measures, a potential step forward, a troubling 38% attributed the reductions to a higher tolerance for misbehavior in classrooms.

These opinions raise serious questions about whether centralized efforts, like the ones on order in California, might actually produce more net harm than good for the majority of students. The balance between appropriate discipline measures and the maintenance of orderly classrooms is a delicate one, and the general public shows a greater awareness of that delicacy than the architects of the top-down fixes do. Education Next’s 2019 poll shows that only 28% of all adults support, and 49% oppose, a federal solution that would prevent schools from expelling or suspending students of color at higher rates than other students. That’s a specific question, and given that the public shows concern for fairness, the low approval of a federal solution suggests an appreciation for the fragile balance that a one-sized solution may run roughshod over.

Despite the general distrust of applying racial quotas to suspensions, there are racial opinion gaps that should not be ignored. Forty-six percent of black respondents polled by Education Next favor a federal rule, making them the only group with more support than opposition. Those sentiments presumably flow from higher rates of suspension and perceptions of unfairness among black respondents, and their desire for immediate change.

On net, these polls are encouraging. They demonstrate that the public, parents, and teachers want more order, more fairness, and more productive disciplinary practices inside their schools. More than that, they suggest an understanding that these goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but that the narrow and quick pursuit of any one of these desires can certainly come at the expense of the others. Those are sentiments that school leaders, as well as state and national policymakers, should keep in mind as they pursue discipline reforms.

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