Classroom discipline is, let’s face facts, a fraught subject. It frequently occurs at the uncomfortable vector between schooling and race, where seemingly all useful reform conversations end up turning poisonous and accusatory. If you argue in favor of curbing suspensions and expulsions for black students, you’re privileging the rights of reprobates over the studious kids trying to learn in an unruly environment. Advance a case for stricter measures, however, and you’ll find “disparate impacts” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” hung around your neck. Few areas of education discourse are more in need of illuminating research.

This new study, conducted by Stanford researchers specializing in the investigation of implicit psychological bias, provides exactly that. Through the use of two separate experiments, it exposes a tendency in K–12 teachers (predominantly white females in the middle of their careers, but including members of both sexes and multiple races) to detect patterns of misbehavior in black students more so than white. In the first experiment, the authors provided participants with disciplinary records for students with either stereotypical white or black names, each detailing two episodes of petty insubordination. They then asked the teachers to describe how “troubled” they felt (a composite measure indicating their degree of irritation, the perceived severity of the infraction, and how great a hindrance they felt it would be to their teaching) after reading about each instance. The results speak for themselves: When a student with a stereotypically black name had a second minor transgression, those surveyed felt significantly more troubled, more likely to recommend a harsher punishment, and more likely to deem him a “troublemaker” than after his first disruption. None of this proved true in the case of white students.

The second experiment replicated the conditions of the first, with the addition of an even more disquieting element. This time, participants were asked whether they could imagine suspending the hypothetical students at some point in the future. As in the previous trial, an obvious racial distinction emerged, and the teachers were far more likely see themselves suspending students with names like “Darnell” or “Deshawn.” “The Black student’s misbehavior was significantly more likely than the White student’s misbehavior to be perceived as indicative of a pattern,” the authors write. “And the more likely that teachers were to think the student was Black, the more likely they were to perceive his misbehavior as indicative of a pattern.”

The results of this report hold weighty implications for education reformers. The effects of a suspension on a child’s academic career—indeed, his life as a whole—could potentially be cataclysmic; it disrupts learning in the event and correlates with delayed academic advancement down the line. Clearly, there is room for right-thinking people to disagree on competing approaches to discipline and how to safeguard the interests of kids who step into the classroom ready and eager to learn. But if the facts behind this debate are suffused with indisputable evidence of racial bias, we need to find a way of addressing it.

SOURCE: Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students,” Psychological Science vol. 26 no. 5 (May 2015). 

Kevin Mahnken is an editorial associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, helping to manage its blogs, newsletters, and publications. He graduated with a B.A. in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College. Prior to joining Fordham, he worked in magazine journalism in the D.C. area.