Thompson: Looking Deeper Into Discipline Disparities
Christopher Edley, the co-chair of the Equity and Excellence Commission, noted recently on the PBS News Hour that the recent report on racial disparities in discipline is a "smoking gun" showing there is something seriously wrong with the way our schools serve poor children of color.
If schools are "not successful at figuring out why Jamal and Jose are acting out," said Edley, "the chances are pretty slim that they're figuring out why Maria is two years behind in reading."
To fix our schools, we need to intervene with our kids in a way that "works for each kid." I am leery of data-driven solutions to the disparate impact of discipline, however, but not because they are too hard on educators. The simplistic use of disciplinary numbers is too soft on the problem.
Edley's views are informed by a broader background in employment discrimination law. I want to complement them with a deeper discussion of my system's disciplinary data. In one sense, the numbers reported on the Oklahoma City Public Schools are not as bad. African-Americans represent 30% of our students and 33% of expulsions. More worrisome is that black students receive nearly 50% of out-of-school suspensions.
My first complaint is that the federal data leaves a huge gap between number of suspensions of more than one day and more extreme actions like expulsions and arrests, and it provides no context for discussing those actions. In Oklahoma City, for instance, 58% blacks with disabilities are suspended for more than one day. The most alarming statistic is that 20% of black special education students fit into that category. The data does not address how many days those students were suspended, however. The expulsion rate for black students on IEPs is 0%.
According to the school system's code of conduct, suspensions for more than ten days are limited to extreme cases, such as assaults (as opposed to fights) that cause injury, rape, or the possession guns or other weapons. According the files I was given by the OKCPS, in 2010 the district had 278 of those sorts of incidents. Other incidents, such as the possession of drugs, explosives, and sexual misconduct, can receive a suspension of ten days or more, and they might be serious enough for expulsion. The OKCPS had 337 of those cases. And, of course, there are numerous other offenses, such as arson, extortion, and bullying, that may or may not merit an eleven day suspension.
So, why did OKCPS secondary schools only suspend 220 students for more than ten days, and only 12 students for mandatory suspensions for the rest of the year or a full year? Civil rights activists should also ask why the system did not seriously address each of those 615 incidents, and many more cases of involving violence or endangering other students. I submit that systems like mine exhibit the mentality that was described in "The Wire," as "juking the stats." In an environment where data has high-stakes, the priority of systems is "turning felonies into misdemeanors."
There something wrong with a system that suspends 7,016 secondary students in-house, suspends 7,135 secondary students for five days or less, issues 854 suspensions of six days or more, and only places 69 students in alternative settings. Does such a pattern contribute to the "school to prison pipeline" by being too harsh or by not being credible? I would argue that it is denying treatment to vulnerable kids. Would we deny diabetes treatments to patients because their demographic group is overrepresented in the medical system?
So, I have mixed feelings about the discussion of disparate effects that show that schools are failing our children. I hope districts will listen to the words and the intent of civil rights leaders like Christopher Edley. I would be thrilled if districts shifted resources from gold-plated data systems to fight the educational blame game to longitudinal Early Warning Systems for providing timely interventions. In theory, we could have an honest discussion about the risks and benefits of investing in high-quality, on-site or off-site alternative slots, so schools can address chronic disorder and violence. My fear, however, is that education’s notorious "culture of compliance" will continue, and that systems will concentrate on improving their numbers and ignore the realities that produced the problems. JT (@drjohnthompson)