GAO study on racial disparities in school discipline ignores central question

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has produced a study that’s being touted as vindication of Obama administration policies on school discipline. The study finds that black students get suspended from school at nearly three times the rate of white students nationally.

The GAO acknowledges that “disparities in student discipline. . .may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.” However, it’s difficult to read the “Background” portion of the report (e.g. pages 4-5) without concluding that the GAO tilts strongly towards the conclusion that the disparities it identifies are likely the result of discrimination.

Heather Mac Donald demonstrates that the GAO study does not remotely support such a conclusion. First, “the GAO report ignores the critical question regarding disciplinary disparities: do black students in fact misbehave more than white students?” If they do, then naturally they will be disciplined more.

There’s ample reason to believe that black students do, in fact, misbehave more in school than white and Asian students. As Mac Donald points out:

[B]lack male teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at nearly 10 times the rate of white male teenagers of the same age (the category “white” in this homicide data includes most Hispanics; if Hispanics were removed from the white category, the homicide disparity between blacks and whites would be much higher). . .Lesser types of juvenile crime also show large racial disparities. It is fanciful to think that the lack of socialization that produces such elevated rates of criminal violence would not also affect classroom behavior.

In addition:

U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot shows in a forthcoming report [that] the rate of chronic truancy (defined as 18 or more unexcused absences) was five times higher for black elementary school students in California than for white students.

What underlies the lack of socialization that produces such pronounced differences in everything from black and white homicide rates to black and white truancy among males teenagers? The answer might very well lie in family structure. Yet, the GAO report makes no effort to control for family structure in looking at different discipline rates.

Second, though the GAO points to various studies that purport to show discriminatory attitudes (“implicit bias”) among teachers and staff, it ignores data on actual student behavior. Mac Donald directs our attention to some of that data:

The Justice and Education Departments recently released their annual report, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety.” Black students self-reported being in a physical fight at school at over twice the rate of white students in 2015—a data point certainly relevant to the question of racial rates of school discipline.

Schools that were 50 percent minority or more reported weekly gang activity at nearly ten times the rate of schools where minorities constituted 5 percent to 20 percent of the population. Reports of gang violence in schools with less than 5 percent minority populations were too low to be usable statistically.

Widespread weekly disorder in classrooms was reported in schools with at least 50 percent minority populations at more than five times the rate as in schools with 5 percent to 20 percent minorities. More than four times as many high-minority schools reported weekly verbal abuse of teachers compared with schools with a less than 20 percent minority student body. Widespread disorder and teacher abuse at schools with less than 5 percent minority populations was again too low to be statistically reliable.

Given these facts, one need hardly resort to discrimination or “implicit bias” to explain racial disparities in discipline. Indeed, it would be astonishing if an unbiased disciplinary system did not produce significant racial disparities in suspension rates.

Third, the idea that teachers are biased against blacks seems implausible. In many school systems where disciplinary rates are high, the teachers are mostly black. Are they biased against blacks?

The notion that white teachers are biased also seems far-fetched. Mac Donald reminds us:

Teachers are among the most liberal professionals in the country. Education school is one long marinade in white-privilege theory. Yet we’re supposed to believe that once these social-justice warriors enter the classroom, they are unable to evaluate their black students fairly. Overcome by prejudice, they see disruption and defiance where none exists.

The opposite hypothesis is more likely: teachers strive mightily to avoid removing black children from classrooms. They do so only after other means of discipline have been exhausted, and they do so in order to preserve the right of other students to learn in a safe and orderly environment and to instill a sense of consequences in students who break the rules.

The Department of Education is evaluating whether to rescind Obama’s school discipline directives. The GAO study will be used to argue that the directives should remain in place. For the reasons Mac Donald presents (not all of which are covered in this post), the study provides no basis for a rescission and, indeed, has very little to teach us about the issue.