On School Discipline, Fix the Problem, Not the Statistics

Students arrive at a high school in Venice, Calif., in 2015. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
Are America’s teachers a bunch of racists? Democrats seem to think so.

After a rocky start, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has done an admirable job of reining in Barack Obama’s executive overreach. From giving states more freedom on K–12 schooling to paring back heavy-handed higher-education regulations, she’s taken step after step toward restoring a limited and principled federal role. But there is, unfortunately, one glaring exception: The Obama administration’s guidance on school discipline remains in full force.

That guidance extended Black Lives Matter’s ideology down into America’s classrooms. Social-justice activists assumed that just as racial disparities in the criminal-justice system must be evidence that cops are (at least implicitly) racist, so too racial disparities in school suspensions must be evidence that teachers are (at least implicitly) racist. Therefore, teachers — like cops — have to be restrained.

Former secretary of education Arne Duncan declared that the discipline disparity “is not caused by difference in children,” but rather by teachers. And because suspensions are correlated with dropping out, which is correlated with other bad outcomes, teachers are complicit in creating a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Never mind that correlation is not causation, or the notion that poverty and family structure might affect behavior. Teachers are the problem, and according to Duncan, “It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

In a January 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline, Duncan put district leaders on notice: Different suspension rates for different racial groups could be cause for a federal investigation. This threat didn’t start the nationwide dissolution of school discipline, which was already under way, but it added fuel to the fire. In the past decade, 53 of America’s largest districts, serving 6.35 million students, revised their discipline codes to reduce suspensions, and 27 states revised statutes to that end.

Suspension rates have plummeted, and every time the numbers go down, social-justice activists celebrate. This would be a happy story if schools were as safe as ever. But if they’re getting less safe, then activists are cheering on a twisted tragedy.

In most places, we don’t know because we don’t measure. We have only anecdotes from teachers, like the woman in Oklahoma City who said she was told “referrals would not require suspension unless there was blood,” or the man in Buffalo who lamented that he sees fights every day and “the kids walk around and say, ‘We can’t get suspended — we don’t care what you say.’”

But in the handful of districts where student and teacher surveys let us measure school climate, we tend to see one of two things happen as suspensions drop: Schools get less safe or school administrators cheat.

In the handful of districts where we can measure school climate, we tend to see one of two things happen as suspensions drop: Schools get less safe or school administrators cheat.

In Chicago, researchers found a statistically significant deterioration in teacher-reported disruptions and student-reported respect. In Los Angeles, the portion of students who said they felt safe in their school dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent. In Virginia Beach, the percent of teachers who said their school was disorderly and unsafe doubled. And in New York City, student-reported violence rose in half of 90-plus-percent-minority schools (and decreased in only 14 percent). In one of those schools last month, a student stabbed two of his peers, killing one and critically injuring the other. The New York Times reported that school leaders were so reluctant to enforce order that parents had essentially formed a militia to patrol the hallways.

Meanwhile, in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Miami, surveys show safety holding steady even as suspensions have decreased. But that’s actually a statistical delusion created by systematic cheating. A Washington Post investigation revealed that D.C. high-school principals simply took suspensions off the books, creating informal do-not-admit lists emailed to teachers but not reported to district administrators. In Miami, disruptive students are now warehoused in detention centers, but not technically “suspended.”

Activists and editorial boards may decry this deception, but given a choice between letting classrooms descend into disorder and cheating to keep things stable, the latter is the more moral option.

The federal government has no business coercing school districts into making that choice. Yet almost a year into the Trump administration, Obama’s school-discipline guidance has not been rescinded. Perhaps that’s partly because DeVos’s team feels trepidation about the media outrage that’s certain to ensue. They shouldn’t.

To be sure, social-justice activists will accuse her of enabling systemic racism. It will make for harsh headlines and ugly allegations. But it’s also the easiest attack in the world to jiu-jitsu.

After all, when DeVos’s detractors declare that she’s enabling racism, they’re really slandering America’s teachers as racists  — which is essentially what the Obama administration did when it pinned the discipline disparity on them. All DeVos needs to do is make the case that our teachers aren’t racist, that the Obama administration systematically undermined their authority, and that it’s time for America to start trusting its teachers again.

That should not be a hard case to make.


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Max C. Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Max C. Eden — Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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