For decades Americans have worked towards the arduous goal of creating equality of educational opportunity for all students. That is probably why each time I have discussions about education with my mother, or my friends’ parents, the topic of discipline inevitably arises. Their argument is usually that education would be a lot better if teachers had more autonomy to discipline students. Their rationale is always the same; their teachers were allowed to use whatever disciplinary method they saw fit and therefore they were too afraid to act out. My standard retort is usually some question about the ability to learn while afraid. However, they inevitably believe that schools are somehow becoming “softer.” According to a 2013 report by Daniel J. Losen and Elena Martinez, this could not be farther from the truth.
While the use of corporal punishment has decreased, the use of exclusionary school disciplinary practices has steadily grown. In the 2009-2010 academic year, over two-million students were suspended from secondary schools (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Historically disadvantaged students are overrepresented in this group. As a country concerned with equalizing educational opportunity, the use of a disciplinary action that is associated with lower academic achievement and excludes students from opportunities to learn seems not only antiquated, but highly hypocritical.
The Black/White gap in suspension rates has increased by 12 percent since 1970 (Losen & Martinez, 2013). However, the intersections of minority identities is associated with an even higher likelihood of school suspension (Ben-Moshe & Magana, 2014; Losen & Martinez, 2013). Losen and Martinez (2013) report that 32% of Black male students with disabilities were suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 academic year. In 2013, the high school graduation rate for Black males was only 59% compared with 80% for their white peers (Schott Foundation for Public Education, 2015). Additionally, in 2013 only 63% or students with a diagnosed learning disability graduated from high school, compared with an 82% national graduation rate.
While factors related to school resources, motivation, and socioeconomic status are often cited as contributing to the low graduation rates of Black males, disciplinary disparities may also significantly contribute to the Black/White gap in graduation rates. One suspension doubles the likelihood of dropping out of high school (Losen & Martinez, 2013). It would be reasonable to think that students are typically suspended for violent or criminal behaviors. However, students are more often suspended for minor offenses, including tardiness, dress code violations, or class disruption (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Excluding a student from school directly limits their opportunity to learn. Although the achievement gap is a major concern that requires full attention, is it possible to fully address it while manufacturing an opportunity gap?
Losen and Martinez (2013) note that there is a significant increase in the rate of suspension between elementary and middle school. However, this rate grows 18 percentage points for Black students and 10 points for Latino students, compared with 6 points for white students (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Research has suggested that school may serve as a protective mechanism to reduce antisocial behaviors during adolescence (Monahan et al., 2013). However, exclusionary discipline is correlated with increased odds of interacting with the justice system (Monahan et al., 2014). This relationship may be even stronger for students with less delinquent peer networks and few instances of early problem behaviors (Monahan et al., 2014). Therefore, while suspension limits educational opportunity, it increases opportunities for delinquency and arrest.
School suspension increases odds of dropping-out of high school and becoming incarcerated. Education is often cited as a remedy for mass-incarceration, unemployment, and socioeconomic disparities. However, the groups more likely to encounter these issues are being excluded from schools at higher rates than their peers (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Therefore, suspension is a way a systematically withholding historically disadvantaged groups from the oft-cited “key to success.” It is uncomfortable to think that this is the result of historically entrenched patterns of segregation and exclusion, but perhaps that is where we may find a solution. Perhaps, before we can fully realize equality of educational opportunity we must understand that American education is in the midst of an overdue paradigm shift.
Brian Huff is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Theory and Policy at Penn State. His work focuses on investigating the role of affective dimensions of learning in the relationship between education and social stratification.