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On Not Drawing the Wrong Conclusions from Racial Disparities

One generally walks on eggshells when discussing race in America. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, considering some of the alternative scenarios. But then there’s a recent fairly well publicized study to remind us of just how limiting it can be to stick to the “safe” parts of the topic.

A new Southern Poverty Law Center publication, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, reports “the high and disproportionate suspension rates being experienced by youth of color,” and more specifically, “the pronounced differences for Black males.” Authors Daniel J. Losen (of UCLA ) and Russell Skiba (from Indiana University) found the student group with the lowest rate of suspension was “Asian/Pacific Islander,” followed by “White,” and then “Hispanic” – all three of them actually with rates below the overall average. Slightly above average were “Native American” students, while “Black” students were suspended at a rate more than double the average of the 18 urban school districts the study looked at.

This last statistic troubles the authors – as it should trouble anyone involved in education. They reason it “unlikely that poverty could sufficiently explain the gender and racial differences in these current data.” Now, I happen to think that they’ve got that right. Unfortunately, a certain narrowness of vision sets in and instead of considering the broader social or historical picture that might factor into this situation, they narrow their field of vision to what they can find within the middle school walls. Their only recommendation – beyond the gathering and dissemination of more information – is to investigate “the possibility of conscious or unconscious racial and gender biases at the school level .”

Certainly history tells us we cannot and should not rule out the possibility of discrimination in any of the situations under consideration, yet there are also even larger issues here – the actual life situation of many in the black community. As anyone who spends time around urban public schools pretty well understands, predominantly black schools are much more difficult places to teach than the average school – kids do not leave their difficult circumstances at home.

Unfortunately, however, the authors at no time convey any sense of awareness of the conditions of actual classroom teaching, and instead cite studies that purport to show that what is cannot be. And really, you don’t even need to go anywhere near the schools to know this – popular culture does a more than adequate job of conveying some of the harsh realities of the black urban scene – to the point of celebrating them, some might say. We get the sense, though, that Losen and Skiba might be satisfied if schools would just cut the suspension rate of black males to the national average – which would improve the situation about as much as a mandate that black students receive the same proportion of “A”s and “F”s as any other group would represent a genuine improvement in strictly academic matters.

The authors mount an argument against suspensions given for reasons they find insufficiently specific: “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering - behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent.” And to demonstrate the inefficacy of school suspension, they raise an argument that we could only charitably call “obtuse”: “It is difficult to argue that disciplinary removals result in improvements to the school learning climate when schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates average lower test scores than do schools with lower suspension and expulsion rates.” In other words, they found that tougher schools have lower test scores!

I don’t for a minute mean to denigrate the authors’ concern for the education system’s inability to do much of anything to improve the situation of the students who are suspended, but dismissing the efficacy of suspension in this manner seems about on a par with judging a policy of evicting law breakers from public housing projects to have failed if the projects remain poorer and more dangerous than the average neighborhood.

Losen and Skiba seem to be either oblivious to or ignoring the truism that all parents want disruptive students out of their children’s class rooms – with the possible exception of the parents of the disrupters themselves. (In fact, a formidable part of the basis of the highly promoted charter school movement is the claim and/or hope that a charter school can deliver a better educational product if it doesn’t have to deal with the “trouble-makers.”)

At times it almost seems that the authors may fail to grasp the simple fact that students are suspended not primarily for their own educational benefit, but for that of everyone else in the classroom. And if we didn’t know it already, recent studies remind us how race-separated America’s schools remain, even after decades of desegregation efforts – which means that children whose education is negatively impacted by classroom disruption will disproportionately tend to be from the same group as the disrupters. So if the fact that “certain racial/gender groups are at far greater risk” of suspension from school means that “harsh discipline policies becomes a civil rights issue as well,” as the report argues, then the fact that “certain racial/gender groups are at far greater risk” of experiencing significant disruption to their educational process must be a civil rights issue as well. The issue – and solution to the problem, then, is unfortunately not so simple as the study might wish it to be.

(As for the presumed “gender bias” identified in middle school suspension rates, I don’t think we’re even dealing with a particularly sensitive/controversial issue here – it’s hard to imagine anyone with the slightest familiarity with middle school-age children not being aware of the fact that there are substantially more truculent boys than girls among the age group.)

What They Might Have Said

When Losen and Skiba touch upon the question of safety, they hint at broader issues they might usefully pursue: “To the extent that safety is the motivation behind the use of suspension, it is short sighted at best to fail to understand that removing many students from school simply leaves them unsupervised on the street. The frequent use of suspension by schools may thus lead to a net reduction in community safety.” Surely if we can argue – and rightly, I think – that putting these kids on the streets probably makes those streets less safe, we must know that we don’t want to be arguing that the solution is to just leave them in the classroom.

Why do schools suspend students? For a thousand specific answers, most of which have to do with facilitating the educational process in the classroom from which they were removed. Should they be sent home to watch videos all day? Of course not. So why are they? Because so many schools lack the resources to do anything with them within the walls of the school but outside of their classroom. An “in-school suspension” would likely be a far better alternative in most cases. However, it requires deploying someone to deal with those students full time and there are ever fewer schools willing or able to fund positions solely for that purpose. Had the authors focused on this dilemma, they might at least have contributed to a broader, more meaningful discussion of the situation.

So why didn’t they? “Realism,” perhaps? The authors may very reasonably have figured that dedicating greater resources toward classroom-disrupting students is a pretty hard sell in this period of budget cutbacks. Academic comfort levels? Poverty and discrimination are recognized areas of study, so we’ll stick with them?

The alternative, of course, is to step back to eggshell territory, where we silently agree not to go. We would have to revisit a discussion that once led to the idea of affirmative action – a time that seems so far away. We would need to consider the ways that this country’s history of slavery continues to affect the life situations of black America to this day, in ways that differ from even the discrimination and poverty experienced by many immigrant groups that came to this country voluntarily.

The situation is not easily discussed. And there’s no telling what conclusions people may draw from it. For some, there’s the fear that dwelling on the topic might even run the risk of appearing to suggest that some groups are inherently intellectually inferior or superior. Academics are not the only ones who don’t know how to “frame” the discussion. All good reasons to back off, maybe. And yet it’s hard to see how keeping the discussion artificially small gets us anywhere in the long run.

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