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Bad Post, Worse Times Story on Student Punishment and Arrest Disparities



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The Washington Post and New York Times had big stories today on a new Department of Education study that shows, to quote the Times lede, “Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who briefed reporters on the study yesterday (most of the data for which has not yet been released, by the way, which has not stopped the news coverage), declared, “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

Now, based on the quotes above, you would think that the discipline is harsher even though the behavior is the same, wouldn’t you? But if you read to the end of the Post article, here’s what you find when you finally get to the obvious question of whether the disparities found in the study show that black students are being treated unequally or simply reflect the fact that black students’ behavior is worse:

Racial disparities in suspensions have been tracked by researchers for years. Experts say there are no studies to show that differences in behavior cause the gap between blacks and whites. [I find that very hard to believe. But note that in any event the story doesn’t say that there are any studies showing that there aren’t any such differences, either.] Exactly why the gap exists is unclear.

Poverty is an important factor that affects rates of school suspension, but when researchers account for these and other factors, disparities by race still exist.

Many researchers say that unconscious bias is likely to be a factor, as is unequal access to highly effective teachers who do better at managing behavior and engaging students. The culture and leadership of a school are also important. But more research is needed, many agree. 

Yes, and many researchers would say that disparities like this likely do reflect differences in behavior. It is a fact that crime rates — and I don’t just mean arrest rates, I mean crime rates — are higher for some racial and ethnic groups than others, after all, so why shouldn’t we expect to find differences in school behavior, too? And many researchers would say that differences in such behavior in turn reflect the fact that more than seven out of ten African-American children are born out of wedlock, versus fewer than three out of ten whites and fewer than two out of ten Asian Americans, and that all kinds of social problems — including school discipline problems — can be traced to growing up in a home without a father, especially for boys. But you won’t learn that from the Post or, especially, the Times.

One last thing: If the Obama administration succeeds in pressuring school districts to diminish school discipline, who do you think will suffer most? That’s right: the well-behaved students in classes with misbehaving students. And of course those students are themselves more likely to be African American.



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