How School Suspensions Push Black Students Behind

The Atlantic

The racial disparities in school-discipline rates are well-known, as are the damaging effects that harsh disciplinary policies can have on school climates. Less clear is whether—and if so, how —these tendencies contribute to the race-based achievement gap, a problem so entrenched and pervasive that discussing it is almost cliché.

The achievement gap has narrowed since researchers started paying attention to it in the 1960s, but not by much. Myriad factors, many of them out of schools’ control, have stymied efforts to narrow it. Kids of color are less likely to have access to early-childhood education, which puts them at a disadvantage by the time they start kindergarten. They’re more likely to live in poverty and face socioeconomic barriers to success throughout their K-12 trajectories. Their parents tend to have lower educational attainment, meaning they may have less of the social and cultural capital needed to navigate the school system.

But a recent study published in the journal Social Problems concludes that differences by race in suspensions—over which schools do have some control—could be a key reason so many black children fall behind their white peers. In fact, as the study points out, progress on closing the achievement gap leveled off in 1990. And (coincidence or not), it was around that same time that schools started ramping up their disciplinary practices and, in many cases, embracing zero-tolerance tactics. 

The study—which was authored by Edward Morris, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, and Brea Perry, a sociologist at Indiana University—concludes that school suspensions account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap. “Particularly for African American students in our data, the unequal suspension rate is one of the most important factors hindering academic progress and maintaining the racial gap in achievement,” Morris and Berry write, describing discipline patterns as an example of “hidden inequality embedded within routine educational practices.” During the 2011-12 school year, black children accounted for 16 percent of the U.S. student population but 32 percent of the students suspended and 42 percent of those expelled, according to Education Department data; nationwide, black students are suspended at roughly three times the rate as their white counterparts.

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