Are all students punished equally?

Enforcing effective means of managing and punishing inappropriate and unacceptable student behavior is a subject of debate when it comes public schools. Some argue that suspensions and expulsions are necessary to make it clear to students that inappropriate and unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated, while others argue that such means of punishment are not only ineffective, but also detrimental to learning experiences. Despite the debate, such methods of punishment are implemented in most schools throughout the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were 49 million students enrolled in the public-school system in the 2011-2012 academic school year. Of those 49 million, 3.5 million students were suspended in-school, 3.45 million students were suspended out-of-school, and 130,000 students were expelled. While these practices are commonly used, the U.S. Department of Education reported that “various data sources show clearly that students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately impacted by such practices.”

Who has the data to prove this?

A major provider of such data is the Civil Rights Data Collection, which reports that “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, while students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers.”

When do these punishment practices typically start?

Such inequalities in punishment are present in as early as preschool. According to data published by the Civil Rights Data Collection for 2013-2014 Preschool Discipline Estimations by Discipline Type, of the 2,931 students who received one out-of-school suspension, 1,355 were Black or African American compared to the 822 that were White. Of the 4,401 students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions, 2,140 were Black or African American compared to the 1,193 that were White. Of the 1,470 students who received more than one out-of-school suspension, 785 were Black or African American compared to the 371 that were White. Of the 127 students expelled, 46 were Black or African American compared to the 49 that were White. In each scenario of out-of-school suspensions for the preschool disciple data, Black or African American students were disproportionately punished compared to their white peers. The only instance in which White students outnumbered Black or African American students with regards to being punished was for the expulsion, but it wasn’t disproportionate.

How does the data compare after preschool?

The variety of discipline data increases greatly after preschool, but the trends remain the same. Black or African American students generally continue to outnumber White students when it comes to discipline. To take a look at this data, please click here.

How effective are these types of punishments?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, with regards to suspensions in particular, they not only prove to be ineffective, but also have negative consequences. They report that “evidence does not show that discipline practices that remove students from instruction—such as suspensions and expulsions—help to improve either student behavior or school climate.” In addition, “suspensions are associated with negative student outcomes such as lower academic performance, higher rates of dropout, failures to graduate on time, decreased academic engagement, and future disciplinary exclusion.” With that said, if Black or African American students are more likely to be suspended or expelled, then they would be experiencing these negative consequences more than their White peers.

Are there alternatives to these disciplinary practices?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are “evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral frameworks” that serve as effective alternatives, and “interventions…have been associated with increases in academic engagement, academic achievement, and reductions in suspensions and school dropouts.”

According to an article published by Edutopia, restorative justice, a practice that “empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups,” has increased in popularity throughout the country and it suggests promising results. “The programs have helped strengthen campus communities, prevent bullying, and reduce student conflicts. And the benefits are clear: early-adopting districts have seen drastic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates, and students say they are happier and feel safer.”

Edutopia also identified examples of successful restorative-justice programs, one being Oakland Unified School District, which began the program back in 2007. The district reported “promising reductions in suspensions, in addition to increased attendance.” To read more about Oakland Unified School District’s success with the program, check out this article: Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle.

The resurgence of segregation in public-schools

One of my fondest memories of my K-12 experience at North Penn School District is the overwhelming feeling of confidence, excitement, passion, and pure happiness that I felt walking through the front doors of the schools that I attended. The main entrance was like my gateway to opportunity; after I walked through those front doors, I could do anything. Walking through those doors, I knew that my performance and success was dependent upon my hard work and effort; I knew that I was given the opportunity to challenge myself; I knew that I could pursue my interests through classes and extracurricular activities.

But why would I tell you this story about how walking through the front doors of my schools was such a transformative experience? Because I would be remiss to state that every student feels this way when they walk through the main entrance of their school. While I believe that public schools are meant to be institutions that provide equal educational opportunity to all those who enter through its front doors, reality contradicts my idealistic belief; public schools are more segregated today than they have been since Brown vs. Board of Education.

With that said, throughout this post, we’re going to learn about the resurgence of segregation in the public-school system.

What is Brown vs. Board of Education?

Brown vs. Board of Education was a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 to overturn the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling from 1896, which basically authorized segregation through the “separate but equal” law. Brown vs. Board of Education declared that separate schools are “inherently unequal.”

What happened after the ruling?

Ordering lower courts to require desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” the Supreme Court’s ruling sparked initiatives like busing and magnet schools. According to an article published by Teaching Tolerance, such initiatives were used “as appropriate remedies to overcome the role of residential segregation in perpetuating racially segregated schools.” In 1988, school integration was at an all-time high.

What is the current status of school integration in the public-school system?

According to an article published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), by the 62nd anniversary of Brown vs. Board in 2016, the GAO had already investigated the state of public school segregation, later concluding that “Poor, black and Hispanic children are becoming increasingly isolated from their white, affluent peers in the nation’s public schools, according to new federal data showing that the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.” The report defined a school segregated by race and class as one “where more than 75 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunch and more than 75 percent are black or Hispanic.”

What does this mean for students?

The most obvious implication here is the serious problem of there being a resurgence of segregation in public-schools throughout the United States. After the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling over 60 years ago, one wouldn’t expect this to be an issue in 2018. However, the prevalence of the problem displays that racism is still alive throughout the system. In addition to this fact, the GAO’s report outlined that students in the largely poor, minority schools were being offered less access to math, science, and college preparation courses. Not only that, but the students in these schools were more likely to experience punishments like suspension or expulsion.

With that said, these students are ultimately being deprived of a quality public-school education that other students have the privilege of receiving. As their access to education diminishes, inequalities inevitably arise.

Let’s see an example

According to an article published by The Washington Post, a judge ordered a Mississippi school district to desegregate 62 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, which was also around the same time that the GAO’s report was published. “Divided by railroad tracks that separate white families, who largely live west of the tracks, from black families, who largely live to the east,” the Cleveland School District was ordered to desegregate its middle and high schools.

Imagine how your experience in school would be different if you were offered less access to math, science, and college prep courses or punished more through suspensions and expulsions. How would this have changed where you stand today? Imagine how you would feel if you were a student being racially segregated. How would this impact your overall health and wellbeing and the way you view equality, society, education, opportunity?

How tracking and ability grouping perpetuate inequality

Do you care about public school education? Do you care about equality? Do you care about students and their learning environments? Do you care about providing equal educational access to all students? Do you care about the issues of inequality present in the educational system? Do you want to learn more about inequalities in education?

If you answered “Yes!” to these questions, then you’re in the right place: a blog dedicated to uprooting, defining, explaining, and tackling the inequalities that minority students experience in the United States throughout their educational experience.

As a college student, education-enthusiast, and future educator, I believe in the power of a strong public school system. Such a system cannot be achieved without recognizing and targeting its current shortcomings. With that said, one major problem that is present in our educational system is the inequalities that minority students face. They aren’t receiving the equal education that they deserve, but by serving as their advocates, we can make a difference and erase such inequalities.

With that said, it’s time to tackle the first inequality: tracking and ability grouping.

What is tracking and ability grouping?

A form of stratification, tracking and ability grouping are ways that students are funneled into groups based on their ability and talents in the classroom. The two differ from one another slightly. While ability grouping is used more at the elementary level and occurs within the classroom, tracking is used more at the secondary level and occurs among classes.

More often than not, ability grouping is present in elementary classrooms when students are divided into different groups based on their reading level. Each group may be given a different name, so the teacher can associate the name with the level. These names tend to shy away from negative connotations, so the students don’t feel inferior or superior based on the level they’re placed into. However, students quickly realize the meaning of the groups they’re placed into.

At the secondary level, students are often funneled into tracks, such as on-grade-level, honors, high potential, or Advanced Placement (AP). With tracking, the level is often associated with the label; students know the meaning of and sense a difference between, for example, on-grade-level and AP.

How does tracking and ability grouping perpetuate inequalities for minority students?

According to an article published by the National Education Association, the level of the track more often than not corresponds to the student’s level of motivation and teacher’s expectations. Because of the different levels of work, expectations, and curriculum taught across tracks and ability groups, moving between each one is especially difficult for students, especially at the secondary level.

While it’s argued that tracking presents teachers with the opportunity to gear their instruction to the needs of the group of students, research sheds on light on the harsh reality. According to an article published by Tom Loveless, research shows that “low-income students and students of color are disproportionately represented in low tracks.” Consider the effects of being placed into a low track the moment you step into secondary school. If there is little room for mobility, then how does this affect the minority students? Simply put, it widens the achievement gap. According to Loveless, “a few high-quality studies indicate that tracking exacerbates achievement differences by depressing the achievement of students in low tracks and boosting the achievement of students in high tracks.”

Let’s take a look at an example

Recognizing the inequalities perpetuated by tracking, Sleepy Hollow High School, located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, took the initiative in 2000 to grant any student the opportunity to take an honors or AP course. According to The Washington Post, the high school has an enrollment of 884 students, 56% of which are economically disadvantaged, and “the school advises every student and his or her family of the benefits of taking college-level work in high school. Armed with good information and teacher recommendations, students are empowered to make the best decision, knowing they have the support they need to succeed.”

Increasing access and giving students the opportunity to enroll in classes that would have only been offered in a higher track ultimately led to a higher demand for the classes. According to the article, “over the last 15 years, Sleepy Hollow increased AP offerings, participation rates, and scores on AP exams.”

In the case of tracking, when given the opportunity and access to the resources and opportunities in higher tracks, demand increases. Students want to learn. Students want to prepare themselves for life after high school, whether it be college or not. Students want equality.