Racial equity in school discipline: Starting in the classroom

March 4, 2021

Black students are suspended or expelled from schools at disproportionately higher rates than other students, and data show the problem is progressively getting worse at the elementary level.

The issue, researchers argue, starts in the classroom where teachers make disciplinary referrals to the school office. A team at Michigan State University hopes it can help change this pattern by increasing teachers’ empathy and critical race consciousness.

Dorinda Carter Andrews headshot
Dorinda Carter Andrews

“We know from research that teachers read students’ behavior in culturally nuanced ways, based on their own assumptions and stereotypes about different racial groups,” said Dorinda Carter Andrews, lead researcher on the new project, which is being funded by a three-year, nearly $600,000 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.

“There are large numbers of Black students in urban schools; however, their teachers are often white. And they are more likely than teachers of color to over-refer Black students for what is deemed negative behavior.”

With fellow experts on educational equity and social networks, Carter Andrews will explore whether a series of professional learning sessions for teachers can reduce the number of discipline referrals for youth in the earliest grades, kindergarten through second grade. They plan to involve 400 teachers and principals in 40 mostly urban schools across Michigan.

Half of the participating educators will engage in training during the first year, starting this summer, followed by the rest of the group in year two.

The 18-hour professional development program will be based in part on an approach previously used by the MSU Office of K-12 Outreach, led by co-principal investigator Bryan Beverly, that shows promise to eliminate or reduce disciplinary inequities.

Carter Andrews and Associate Professor Chezare Warren, another co-PI, will help enhance the program by adding components focused on building teacher empathy toward Black students and cultivating their critical race consciousness, which refers to a heightened awareness of the asymmetrical power relationships that exist between race groups based on racial hierarchy rooted in white dominance.

The research team says the need has only intensified in the past year, amidst more violence against Black individuals at the hands of police. In addition, the effects of the global pandemic have been especially tragic in urban and Black communities.

“This will push classroom and school leaders to take a closer look at themselves first, in order to better see their students,” said Beverly. “If they can see their Black and Brown students through a different lens, they are less likely to add a punitive measure based on their behavior, which can damage important relationships being built.”

The researchers will assess the impact of their intervention using discipline data from the schools, and pre- and post-surveys. They will look for differences based on factors such as the educators’ race and gender. They also hope to conduct focus group interviews with some of the participating teachers and their students, as well as principals.

MSU Foundation Professor Ken Frank will bring his expertise on social network analysis to the project, asking teachers about their close colleagues and examining if they modify their disciplinary practices in response to what their peers are doing.

“Teachers do not make disciplinary decisions in isolation. Discipline is one of the most important issues to coordinate at the school level so that students are treated equitably,” Frank said.

“If we find evidence that teachers do respond to the practices of their colleagues, it means that networks can be leveraged to implement new policies. But it also means that subgroups who influence one another could depart from school policy.”

As chairperson of the MSU Department of Teacher Education, Carter Andrews said the project will expand upon efforts in her department to better prepare new teachers committed to racial justice by also providing tools to practicing teachers who serve children at the start of schooling.

“This is one of the clearest forms of anti-Black racism in schools,” Carter Andrews said. “We need to intervene and eliminate it early on to ensure that Black students are not only able to graduate but to experience school in humanizing ways.”

Outreach Specialist Nicole Ellefson is also on the project team.

Related news

Dorinda Carter Andrews was the first African American woman named to lead the Department of Teacher Education in 2019.

Bryan Beverly and Nicole Ellefson were leaders in providing a reopening guide for schools to help leaders prepare schools and communities for a range of realities while learning in a pandemic. (June 2020)

Kenneth Frank was part of a team to develop a clearer, more intuitive method of relaying scientific results. (June 2020)