A new study by University of Kentucky researchers contends that there is a strong relationship between suspensions and the racial achievement gap between black students and white students.
Edward Morris, an associate professor of sociology at UK, and Brea Perry, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who was at UK when the study occurred, presented evidence that disparate suspensions lower performance and contribute to racial gaps in achievement.
“This analysis — the first of its kind — reveals that school suspensions account for approximately one-fifth of black-white differences in school performance,” said their article published by the Society for the Study of Social Problems journal.
Racial inequalities in adulthood — in areas as diverse as employment, incarceration and health — can be traced to unequal academic outcomes in childhood and adolescence, the study said.
The data represented students in grades 6 through 10 who were enrolled in a district public school in Kentucky over a three-year period beginning in August 2008 and ending in June 2011. The full sample includes 24,347 students. Morris said he could not identify the large, urban district in Kentucky where the data came from.
“We found that one suspension puts kids considerably behind,” Morris told the Herald-Leader in an interview.
Blacks are suspended at three times the rate of whites, he said.
Suspensions account for 20 percent of the racial gap in reading and 17 percent of the racial gap in math, according to Morris.
“Discipline is a necessary condition for student learning. However, unequal exclusionary discipline severely restricts opportunities for students to learn and grow. For genuine progress to be made in closing the racial achievement gap, we must also make progress in closing the racial punishment gap,” the study said.
The study indicated that exclusionary discipline such as suspensions and expulsions do not improve behavior.
The researchers noted that in the 1990s, schools became increasingly authoritarian and intrusive, opting more for automatic suspensions and less for measures that don’t involve removing students from the classroom. such as loss of privileges.
In January 2014, the study said, the U.S. Department of Education issued a set of guiding principles concerning discipline in public schools. Although the federal government cannot dictate local disciplinary policies, the document encouraged schools to rely less on exclusionary forms of discipline and reminded school officials that they cannot discriminate in administering discipline.
The racial achievement gap has been a problem for Fayette County Public Schools and so have suspensions.
In 2014-15, the latest year for which data is available on the Kentucky Department of Education website, there were 1,952 incidents of out-of-school suspensions involving black students in Fayette compared with 1,067 incidents of out-of-school suspensions involving white students.
In that same school year in Fayette, there were 10,500 incidents in which black students were placed in in-school suspension programs, as opposed to 5,304 incidents involving white students, according to the district’s report card on the state department’s website.
In response to the study, Fayette County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said, “This is not new information for us. Academic and social learning go hand in hand ... We recognize that in order for students to be successful they have to be in the classroom and we are committed to limiting exclusionary discipline practices,” she said.
Schools have developed strategies to decrease out-of-school and in-school suspensions and are working to improve classroom instruction and provide intervention for students, she said.
Deffendall said that over a four-year period, between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years, the number of out-of-school suspensions for black students in Fayette County Public Schools fell from 2,895 to 1,952, which is a 33 percent decline. Suspensions of white students also decreased, from 1,817 to 1,067, a 41 percent decline, she said.
She said Fayette County has partnered with the Kentucky Department of Education to increase the number of students reaching proficiency in reading and math and there will be more specific strategies in Superintendent Manny Caulk’s upcoming entry plan.