The Race Card: Making Sense of the Duncan Discipline Report

The big news last week was the release of data by the U.S. Department of Education showing that, as the press release stated,

Minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The report, part of the annual Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey, included data from 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation’s students and found, among other things, that black male students “are far more likely to be suspended than their peers.” In fact, it reported, though black students make up 18 percent of the students in the sample, they accounted for 35 percent of the students suspended once and 39 percent of the students expelled.

When I read this, I yawned.  It matches perfectly the statistics in my school district.  But just as my district pays little attention to the academic environment that these “bad” kids swim in, so too the ensuing national melee over OCR data didn’t mention curricula and teachers.  Everyone wanted to talk about “discipline” practices, school “safety” and “racism.”

Wrote Jason Riley in the Wall Street Journal,

The Obama administration’s sympathies are with the knuckleheads who are disrupting class, not with the kids who are trying to get an education. But is racial parity in disciplinary outcomes more important than school safety?

No mention of the knuckleheads inflicting inferior academic standards and teachers on black kids. Or the connection between the three. In my experience, by the time kids start acting out seriously—fourth and fifth grades—they are so frustrated by their ignorance (vis lousy curriculum and inexperienced teachers), that they use their fast-maturing cognitive abilities to ask, “what’s the point of paying attention?” And let’s throw poverty into this brew: if you’re learning little and have parents who aren’t so hot and your chances of getting mugged while walking to the bus stop are one in five—well, Mr. Riley says it best,

This is yet another argument for offering ghetto kids alternatives to traditional public schools, and it’s another reason why school choice is so popular among the poor. One of the advantages of public charter schools and private schools is that they typically provide safer learning environments.

Safer—and smarter.

I have been working on a major Fordham report on successful high schools for the poor and minorities in Ohio and have discovered that discipline, academic rigor, and devoted teachers go together. In fact, all of these black-majority schools are safe because, as staff and students testify, “we don’t have time to get in trouble.” Curriculum matters. Good teachers matter. School culture matters.

I urge everyone to read the OCR report in the context that it was presented. It is hardly a rigorous study, but it definitely is, as Secretary Duncan put it, “a wake-up call to educators at every level” to “address educational inequities.”

What this report tells us is that schools matter. And they matter in very old-fashioned ways: as institutions of learning. Do that right, as kids of all color know, and we won’t have to try to fool them into thinking that the prison they are attending is a school.

-Peter Meyer

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institutes Board’s Eye View blog.

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