The Obama administration is waving around a new study showing that black school kids are “suspended, expelled, and arrested in school” at higher rates than white kids. According the report, which looked at 72,000 schools, black students comprise just 18% of those enrolled yet account for 46% of those suspended more than once and 39% of all expulsions.
In his embarrassingly misguided critique of the report Riley sees want he wants to see and makes an argument for tougher school discipline and greater access to public charter schools and private schools which “typically provide safer learning environments.” He writes, “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. Riley’s use of the term “ghetto kids” is all you need to know about his qualifications for weighing in on this sensitive, complex topic. Instead of using the report to advance his political agenda, imagine if Riley had instead asked questions about its meaning. Most importantly, what explains dramatic differences among which students are most often suspended from school? I don’t have an answer, but based upon three decades of work in culturally diverse schools and last week’s “The Teaching Profession Desperately Needs Some Linsanity” I offer four variables: 1) Subconsciously, mostly white, mostly middle class educators reward students for coming to class with their materials, raising their hands, being quiet, staying still in their seats, and submitting to their authority. Intelligence is equally evident among all ethnicities, but substantive cultural differences translate into different ways of behaving at home and therefore, in school. Instead of relatively homogeneous teachers and administrators adjusting their expectations to their increasingly diverse students, they expect their students to adjust to their white, middle class expectations. And it’s a lot easier for students raised in white, middle class families to demonstrate the aforementioned “teacher pleasing behaviors”. Simply put, teachers are less likely to discipline quiet and submissive students than louder, non-conforming ones. 2) Most white, middle class families see academic achievement as integral to long-term success in life; as a result, they usually monitor their children’s progress. Of course non-white, non-middle class families do too, but maybe not as high a percentage. For some non-white, non-middle class families schooling is neither positive or negative, for others it’s decidedly negative. For these families schools have been inhospital places that too often assume everyone defines success the same way—graduating college and making decent money. School administrators believe their discipline policies, procedures, and decision-making are rational, but what’s rational depends in part upon one’s cultural context. This article on a Bakersfield, California high school cross-country running program is an extremely poignant example of this. And this book, Unequal Childhoods, is another related, highly recommended read. 3) Despite rapidly changing demographics and accelerating global interdependence, most school curricula remains decidedly Eurocentric; consequently, non-white, non-middle class students are even less interested in traditional course content than students more generally. Course content is rarely, if ever, relevant to their life experience. The less interested students are, the more likely they are to act out. 4) Black students are sometimes oppositional not because they’re incapable of cooperating, but because they’re frustrated they can’t do what’s expected of them. Sometimes they start kindergarten already behind their peers, and then slip farther behind each year, ending up several grades in the hole. By middle school, absent individualized attention and coordinated remediation, their reading comprehension and numeracy skills make school a source of constant embarrassment and frustration. Riley seemingly assumes the “ghetto kids” are out-of-reach bad seeds and that we should just cut our loses and create some charter schools for the “students who are trying to get an education”. I propose a different approach. Schools truly partnering with parents by asking them what they want for their children and then providing struggling students with extensive one-on-one tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Do those two things and watch the black suspension rate steadily fall to somewhere around 18%.