Clueless in Milwaukee

Earlier this month, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to resolve a complaint that it discriminated against black students in suspensions and other disciplinary actions. The agreement requires MPS, among other things, to improve its monitoring and data collection, better train staff, update its disciplinary policies, and develop early identification and intervention strategies for students at risk for behavioral problems.

Depending on how the disciplinary policies are “updated” and the nature of the training, there may be nothing wrong with these measures. However, the message received by MPS, and I assume the message the feds intended to send, portends serious mischief:

Superintendent Darienne Driver said she is confident MPS can reduce the racial disparities in discipline in the district, which has had among the highest suspension rates in the country in recent years.

“We have to. It’s not optional,” Driver said after Tuesday’s meeting of the school board’s Committee on Student Achievement and School Innovation, where she briefed members on the agreement.

But what if the racial disparities in discipline are the result of racial disparities in the incidence of behavior that justifies suspension? In that case, the Superintendent’s mission might well lead to more disorderly classrooms, to the detriment of the great majority of students, including (and maybe especially) black students.

There’s good reason to believe that, indeed, higher rates disciplinary rates for black students are the product, not primarily of race discrimination, but of higher rates of serious indiscipline. Gail Heriot and Alison Somin discuss the matter in this important paper (abstract here). As they state (at pages 33-34):

Both [progressives and conservatives] agree that the average white or Asian child and the average African-American child arrive at school having had quite different experiences at home. Nobody should be shocked that these different home experiences translate into different behavior at school.

There’s another problem with Superintendent Driver’s takeaway from the federal government’s lawsuit and the resulting settlement. Driver seems to have in mind a reducing the overall number of suspensions and expulsions. But what if reducing the incidence of suspensions and expulsions will not reduce the racial disparity? What if it will actually will increase the racial disparity?

This concern is not hypothetical. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

While MPS has dramatically reduced overall suspensions over the last decade, the racial disparities have persisted. In the 2015-’16 school year, black students made up 53.4% of MPS’ student body but 80% of its suspensions and 87% of its expulsions.

This should come as no surprise. As we have noted on several occasions, citing the work of Jim Scanlan, relaxing disciplinary standards is not likely to reduce racial disparities in suspension rates. Rather, it is likely to increase them.

Thus, at the federal government’s prompting (to put it nicely), MPS seems determined to embark on a course that will increase classroom disruption, to the detriment of students, while also increasing the racial disparities that MPS and the feds say they want to decrease.

That’s bad even for government work.

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