Among the two greatest challenges we face as we emerge from the pandemic are lagging academic achievement and student behavior. The pandemic harmed students in both areas, and we need to address them. However, the pandemic also exacerbated a long-standing, problematic relationship that is even more concerning today.
For decades, we have been concerned about the existence of gaps between the achievement of groups with certain characteristics, especially students of color and Caucasian students. Meanwhile, we’ve attempted to address disparities in discipline incidents based on race for years. Yet, the two phenomena have typically been studied and addressed largely as separate, unrelated issues. Changes in academic performance have been viewed as instruction/curriculum/learning issues while disparities in discipline have been viewed as cultural/contextual/connectedness issues.
Importantly, a recent study calls the approach of separating these two challenges into question. The study suggests that the connection between achievement gaps and discipline disparities is stronger than we have assumed. It also may be that working on one of the gaps can influence the other and that working on both types of gaps may have a larger beneficial impact on school success than previously understood.
The researchers studied achievement gaps and discipline disparities using data from more than 2000 American school districts drawn from the Stanford Education Data Archive, a massive database of math and reading scores and racial achievement gaps, and federal civil rights data on school suspensions. The research was conducted by a team of researchers from several universities, led by a professor from Stanford University. The analysis focused on students in grade three through eight from the 2011-12 school year to 2013-2014.
In general, the study found that students who attend schools in districts with large racial achievement gaps experienced higher suspension rates. However, the disparity was greatest for black students. For example, a widening of ten percent in reading and math achievement gaps between black and white students was accompanied by a 30 percent larger gap in suspension rates between black and white students, as compared to similar school districts. On the flip side, school districts with black/white suspension rate gaps ten percent wider than average, experienced black-white achievement gaps that were 17 percent wider. Importantly, this relationship between academic achievement gaps and discipline disparities held firm even when controlled for socio-economic, parent education, and other demographic characteristics.
The study did not extend to causational factors driving the relationship between achievement gaps and discipline disparities. However, the result of the study suggests several important questions for us to consider and test in our own schools and districts.
First, is it possible that when students are suspended from school that missed instruction and lost learning opportunities lead to lower academic performance? Logic suggests that this may be at least one factor. Obviously, finding alternatives to out-of-school suspension and maintaining learning and teaching continuity could reduce this impact.
Second, might suspensions from school result in students feeling less connected in their relationships to school staff and fellow students? We know that a sense of belonging and being accepted are important factors in support of the willingness of students to take learning-related risks and practice learning persistence.
Third, might some suspensions be the result of students feeling as though they cannot be successful in school? If students believe they cannot succeed, they sometimes choose to behave in ways that connect academic failure to misbehavior rather than unsuccessful learning efforts. High quality learning experiences, effective instruction, and appropriate supports can go a long way toward preventing students from facing such a choice.
Fourth, are there negative perceptions embedded in the school culture about the ability of some groups of students to excel in academics? What we believe about the abilities of our students can make a big difference in what they believe about their own potential and our commitment to ensure that they succeed.
Fifth and related, do we hold expectations and perceptions, whether higher or lower, about the behavior of some groups of students that lead to inequitable discipline? Behavior that may be outside of dominant cultural norms can sometimes become the basis for discipline even when the behavior is not threatening or disruptive to the school environment. Understanding and flexibility often can go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary disciplinary incidents and achieving equity.
Obviously, the findings of this study raise many important questions. It is crucial that we review the experience of students in our schools and determine if these same conditions are present. If so, we have no time to waste in determining causes and designing strategies to achieve the academic and behavioral outcomes we need.