Whether school discipline falls differently on students from different racial groups is an ongoing concern for families, school and community leaders, and policymakers. Typically, the strongest school discipline literature is laser-focused on unequal consequences for similar misbehaviors, but a recent study led by the University of Maryland’s Jing Liu looks at how office discipline referrals differ by teacher and school characteristics.
Jing and co-authors draw data from a large and diverse school district in California. Though unnamed, it sounds an awful lot like San Francisco, and has very fine-grained referral records. Thirty-three percent of its pupils are Asian, 30 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Black and 12 percent White. Ten percent are multiracial. The study covers referrals between the 2016–17 and 2019–20 school years that are issued by teachers, which comprise about 92 percent of the total. (The remainder were issued by administrators and are not included in the analysis.) Their sample comprises 75,229 referrals handed out by roughly 3,000 teachers over the four school years. Analysts identify the top 5 percent of referrers in each year and their contributions to racial gaps in both referrals and suspensions. The demographics of the top referrers are similar to those of all referrers, meaning 49 percent White, 5 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 18 percent Asian.
Among all teachers in the district, 34 percent of them made at least one referral within a given year. But over half of them have an annual referral count below five. And the top 5 percent referrers issued over forty-eight referrals per year, which is roughly one every four school days. While fewer than eighty teachers in the sample were ever a top referrer, they account for 35 percent of all referrals in the four-year study period. Looking at all referrers, the Black-White referral gap is slightly above three referrals, which is similar for the Hispanic-White, and Multiracial-White gaps, but the growth of those gaps is not as fast as the Black-White referral gap. (The Asian-White referral gap is stable across time.) Focusing on the top 5 percent of referrers, the researchers find that they effectively double the Black-White and Hispanic-White and Multiracial-White gaps. In other words, even though top referrers represent a small group, they have an outsize effect on the overall racial gaps in referrals.
Next, the analysts classify the infractions that led to the referrals into three large categories: interpersonal and defiance issues; violence; and truancy and drugs. Defiance, especially among top referrers, is what drives the increase in referral gaps by race, and what many view as the most subjective infraction. The analysts also find that approximately 4 percent of office referrals convert to suspensions, such that the magnitude of suspension gaps pales in comparison to referral gaps.
Finally, analysts look at what may predict referral behavior by the teachers. They find that the racial compositions of the schools where top referrers work, along with their own characteristics, are both drivers. For instance, Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in schools and classrooms among students who received referrals by top referrers. Teachers of color are also less likely to be a referrer or top referrer compared to their White colleagues. Specifically, a Black teacher is 4.8 percentage points less likely to be a referrer than a White teacher across grade levels. And the number of years spent teaching and the grade level taught are particularly important predictors for new teachers: Those who have taught 0–3 years at the middle school level tend to be top referrers.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but one item shouldn’t be put away: School leaders should be able to readily identify the relatively small number of teachers who need help with student discipline and offer them just that—particularly as it pertains to defiance concerns—so that they can maintain control of their classrooms without resorting to office referrals.
On an equally optimistic note (new year, new optimism!), the study’s results indicate that, even without such targeted assistance, only about 25 percent of top referrers in a given year remain that way the following year, and even fewer do so in year three. This suggests that they learn how to manage behavior better over time. Given formal identification of and supports to struggling novices, we can shrink both the number of them and the duration of their learning curves. That’s a resolution worth keeping.
SOURCE: Jing Liu, Emily K. Penner, and Wenjing Gao, Troublemakers? The Role of Frequent Teacher Referrers in Expanding Racial Disciplinary Disproportionalities, American Educational Research Association (June 2023).