Why Minority Students Face ‘Harsher Punishments’

by Christopher Paslay

Minority students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from America’s public schools.  But there is a lurking variable in the equation that Secretary Duncan refuses to address.    

According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black students are more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.  This is noteworthy information, being that 84 percent of America’s public school teachers are White.

When addressing the report’s findings, Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested the harsher punishments were the result of either conscious or unconscious discrimination.  Duncan said that the report was an eye-opener for school officials, and that it would force disciplinarians to reevaluate their inconsistent policies and work to make discipline fair and equitable across all races.       

Duncan’s belief that discrimination is causing minorities to be suspended or expelled is a classic example of a logical fallacy, also known as the belief that correlation proves causation.  It is also an example of a lurking variable.  Simply stated, you cannot conclude that racism is taking place in America’s public schools simply because teachers are mostly White and the students receiving the harshest punishments are mostly Black.         

The truth is that correlation does not imply causation.  For example, it would be wrong to assume that sleeping with your shoes on causes a headache, even if statistics showed that 100,000 people went to bed with their shoes on and woke up with a headache.  There is most likely another factor that led to the cause, a lurking variable; in this case, that variable would be that the people went to bed drunk. 

Likewise, it would be wrong to assume that eating ice cream causes drowning, even though statistics show that as ice cream sales go up, so do the number of drowning deaths.  The lurking variable in this case is hot weather.

Which is why Secretary Duncan should not assume discrimination is the primary reason minorities are three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.  There is a lurking variable, and it is the fact that Black students are three times as poor as their White counterparts.

According to statistics from the National Poverty Center, 38 percent of Black children in the United States live in poverty, whereas only 12 percent of White children are impoverished.  This is extremely significant because research continues to show that poverty leads to poor conduct, low academic achievement, and the chronic breaking of school rules. 

The Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy report “The Family—America’s Smallest School,” highlights how one in three Black children in the U.S. are “food insecure” and how 70 percent of Black babies are born out of wedlock to a single mom.  This is very troubling in light of the fact that children in single-parent families score lower on academic tests, have higher incidences of psychological problems that reflect aggression and poor conduct, have a greater tendency to abuse illegal substances, and are more likely to have sexual relationships at an earlier age. 

In a 2009 report titled “Parsing the Achievement Gap II,” the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to behavior and student achievement. 

Some significant findings were that White students’ parents were more likely to attend a school event or to volunteer at school; minority students were more likely to change schools frequently; the percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight was higher than that for White infants; minority children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, such as lead and mercury; minority children were less likely to be read to daily by parents; minority children watched more television; and minority students grew less academically over the summer.

This research—which lays bare some of the root causes of violent and dysfunctional conduct—is not new.  Yet Arne Duncan, the highest education official in the land, attributes the high number of minority suspensions and expulsions to something as banal and cliché as “discrimination”. 

This is, quite frankly, pathetic.  It is also counterproductive from a learning standpoint.  Although some racial discrimination may still exist in public schools (there is no significant data to show that it does), reinforcing the idea that students are targets—that they are not the captain of their own ship but simply a victim—contradicts the fundamental message hardworking teachers across America are trying to instill in their students: Personal responsibility!      

Duncan’s simplistic conclusion of discrimination is also lazy.  Instead of rolling up his sleeves and attempting to fight the good fight, instead of addressing the multitude of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges facing our minority children so they can receive the supports they and their teachers need, Duncan washes his hands of the problem entirely.  It’s racism.  Period.  Next question?     

Amazingly, Secretary Duncan hypocritically speaks of the will to change.  “The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change,” he said of the findings in the new report.  “The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.  It is our collective duty to change that.”

School officials across America are more than willing to face the facts and become agents of change.  The question is—is Secretary Duncan?

1 thought on “Why Minority Students Face ‘Harsher Punishments’

  1. The fact that President Obama continues to support Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education speaks volumes about this administration’s lack of knowledge and understanding about almost all educational issues.

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