Friday, August 10, 2012

School Discipline Again

A new article by Heather MacDonald, published online in the current issue of the City Journal, criticizes the campaign recently launched by the Departments of Education and Justice against disproportionate minority discipline rates in public schools. MacDonald argues that the two Departments consider the higher discipline rates of black and Hispanic students as evidence of discriminatory treatment by schools. Further, these federal bodies, according to MacDonald, espouse the theory of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which holds that unequal school discipline policies, especially in the form of suspensions, not only tends to disadvantage minority students educationally but also to channel them toward the penal system in adulthood. MacDonald maintains that the campaign creates administrative red tape for schools, hampers the ability of schools and teachers to use discipline effectively, and pressures schools to punish students by race as a matter of official practice. She argues that mere variation across groups cannot, in itself be taken as evidence of discrimination. Asians, for example, experience school discipline at lower rates than whites, and few would take this as automatically indicating anti-white bias.  MacDonald also points out that the evidence for a causal relation between school discipline and adult imprisonment is slender. Finally, she cites anecdotal and statistical support for the argument that black and Hispanic students receive more disciplinary responses because they commit more infractions.
I’ve dealt with this topic previously, but one of the reasons that I found this article interesting is that I recently served as a rebuttal witness in a court case in which a school district was trying to achieve unitary status (freedom from court oversight) against the opposition of the Department of Justice.  School discipline was one of the areas of contention. The DOJ maintained that the disproportionate punishments received by black students in this district indicated that the district engaged in discriminatory treatment. The DOJ attorneys brought in an expert witness to support these claims. Essentially, their expert, a sociologist specializing in school discipline argued that the school district gave its teachers too much discretion in making disciplinary decisions and that they therefore used this discretion in ways that systematically discriminated against black students. She also cited the “school-to-prison pipeline” as one of the negative consequences of this alleged systematic discrimination.
To support her argument, she relied mainly on a series of regression equations including the central associations of interest between various disciplinary responses and race and other variables. Because the association between discipline and race was still there in each equation even though other variables (such as being classified as a student at risk of dropping or receiving free or reduced lunch) were included, she argued that the association must be due to discrimination. Now, as I pointed out in my response, this is obviously untenable. An unexplained association is just that: unexplained. One cannot use “discrimination” as the default. In my extensive work as a manuscript reviewer, though, I’ve noticed that this practice of taking discrimination as the automatic default explanation is common among social scientists, especially in the literature on school discipline. It is a form of systematic confirmation bias derived from the assumptions and expectations many social scientists share with the current Departments of Justice and Education and supported by perspectives that are popular among many academics and advocates.

Murders Committed by People Under 18, by Race, 2010
As MacDonald points out, there are good alternatives to assuming that unexplained variations can be attributed to discrimination. In my own research on events in schools, I have pointed out that the inequalities, problems, and injustices within schools often result less from the actions of the schools than from the inequalities, problems, and injustices of the society that contains the schools. On this point, it is worth noting that in the larger society,  in which schools exist  there are clear racial differences in all manner of infractions.  For example, Black young people made up 62% of all homicide offenders under the age of 18 in 2010, according to the federal government's Uniform Crime Reports, even though Blacks constituted slightly under 17% of the population of the United States aged below 18.  I cite homicides not because these are the most typical crimes but because they are so well reported and allow little discretion on the part of the police. If we look at other offenses, Black young people were over-represented among offenders in crimes of forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, vehicle theft, arson, prostitution, and drug abuse.

Percentages of All Juvenile Crimes Committed by Blacks, 2010

The reasons for these demographic variations are complex and rooted in our history and we should not take the variations as indicators that any racial or ethnic category is inherently inclined toward crime or disorder. Nevertheless, we can take the variations as well-established social facts. Consistent with the idea that schools reflect the larger society, we can find reflections of these problems in our schools. The "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" available from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in school year 2009-2010 schools with larger percentages of minority students reported more student racial and ethnic tensions, more student verbal abuse of teachers, more widespread disorder in classrooms, more student acts of disrespect for teachers other than verbal abuse, and far more gang activities.
Although the “discrimination as default” was my disciplinary colleague’s most serious mistake, she made several other errors, some simply methodological, but mainly driven by the fact that she shared with the DOJ the a priori conviction that group differences must be due to discrimination and that governmental intervention can eliminate this putative discrimination. My analysis of her report appears to have some effect because the DOJ lost this part of the case.
To briefly relate this to issues that have come up in another recent controversy, although I think the opposing expert in this case was wrong, and that many of her errors were due to the fact that she was convinced of the “right” answer and looking for ways to find this “right” answer, I most certainly do not consider her as in any way morally culpable or incompetent. In fact, she seemed to me to be an extremely intelligent and well-spoken individual who was making some common fundamental errors. Nor do I consider the large number of social scientists who make similar errors to be fools or bad people. Errors are useful.  We can’t engage in meaningful discourse if we can’t risk being wrong.  But all of us, including those now running the Departments of Justice and Education should ponder Cromwell’s admonition: “ I beseech you, think it possible you may be mistaken.” This is hard to do when official campaigns and programs of orthodoxy seek to direct our conversations.

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