GAO Reports That Some Students Are Disciplined More Than Others

A recent GAO report on school discipline came to a startling conclusion: boys are punished far more than girls. This is true for all types of discipline, and the effect is the same for schools of all types and income levels:

Do you find this shocking? My mother the former fourth-grade teacher probably wouldn’t. Boys are generally less mature than girls and they act out more. It’s not really too surprising that they get disciplined more. This finding would only be outrageous if there were some way to independently measure the behavior of boys and girls and then determine that boys are disciplined more even though they don’t break the rules any more than girls do.

This GAO report was brought to my attention by German Lopez at Vox, and I’m just kidding about the whole boy-girl thing. Nobody really cares about that. What people care about is that the report also finds that black students are disciplined more than white students:

This is about the hundredth report to find that black students are disciplined more than white students, so I don’t think there’s any doubt that the numbers are basically correct. But this chart includes a footnote:

Disparities in student discipline such as those presented in this figure may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

That’s because there’s no independent measure of black student behavior compared to white students. There’s not even any control for poverty or for parental education, two obvious possibilities for behavioral differences.

So is this disciplinary divide a result of racism? It’s impossible to say. Hispanic students are underrepresented, which suggests something else might be at work. But again: you simply can’t draw any conclusions from this report aside from the fact that there is a difference—which we already knew—and that more detailed study is needed to determine the causes. Unfortunately, more detailed study is profoundly tricky. How do you objectively measure classroom behavior? And even if you do—and you still find a difference in rates of discipline—how do you know if it’s something intrinsic to the students or something extrinsic caused by different treatment by teachers? Or is it caused by something else entirely? Household composition? Racial disparities outside of school? Concentrated poverty? Does it differ by state or region?

This is a wickedly tough problem to measure. We know that black students are disciplined more than white students. That’s very well established. But we still don’t know why.