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Black elementary school students are more likely to be disciplined by teachers who don’t look like them, according to research published on Nov. 1.

The new study out of North Carolina is the first to individually track students over multiple years to gauge patterns of detention, suspension and expulsion by the race of both students and teachers. The study sample was limited to black and white students and teachers, and didn’t evaluate Latinos or other races or ethnicities.

It found that black boys, in particular, were significantly less likely to be disciplined by black teachers. Having a black female teacher decreased black male students’ chances of facing detention, suspension or expulsion by about 15 percent, and the effect of black male teachers was even more pronounced, at 18 percent.

Black girls were also slightly more likely to be disciplined by white teachers. For white students, their rates of detention, suspension and expulsion weren’t affected by whether their teachers were black or white.

Education officials around the country are re-assessing the impact of punishments that remove students from the classroom. Disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion among children of color, in particular, are raising concerns that schools are pushing these students toward increased contact with the criminal justice system by treating them harshly and depriving them of educational opportunities and the relative safety of school.

Among the concerns about this school-to-prison pipeline are its double-edged impacts on health; people with more education tend to live longer and experience better health, while incarceration is unhealthy for communities, families and individuals.

The latest study doesn’t answer the question of why black teachers may be less likely to discipline black students. Is it because black students behave better for black teachers, or that black teachers have better classroom-management skills? Or is it that white teachers are less lenient toward black students? There’s some evidence from other research that implicit bias among teachers may predispose them to perceive normal behavior by students of color as misbehavior—even among preschoolers.

It does present a potential solution, though: Hire and retain more teachers of color. In Colorado, as in the rest of the country, there’s a stark mismatch in the diversity of teachers and students. People of color make up only 12 percent of public school teachers statewide, while 46 percent of students are not white.

In Denver Public Schools, the ratio of black students to black teachers has actually gotten worse over recent decades, Rocky Mountain PBS and Chalkbeat reported last year, from 44-to-1 in 1970 to 51-to-1 in 2014. That’s still better than Aurora Public Schools, which had a 97-to-1 ratio of black students to teachers that same year; and Jefferson County Public Schools, at 85-to-1.

Rocky Mountain PBS found that several factors contributed to the declining number of black teachers in Colorado’s schools, including an increase in other career options for professionals of color, a paucity of black and Latino enrollment in teacher training programs, and problems with retaining teachers of color. Black teachers were slightly more likely to be fired from Denver Public Schools than teachers of other races.

Across the country, teachers of color are also more likely to quit the profession. A 2015 paper released by the Albert Shanker Institute, an education-focused foundation, found that teachers of color were more likely to be serving high-poverty schools. But its analysis found that that’s not what was driving them away; rather, teachers of color most frequently blamed “a lack of collective voice in educational decisions and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom.”

The tragedy may be that the same biases that are excluding students of color from classrooms are also pushing out teachers of color.

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Kristin Jones

Freelance writer and editor
Denver, Colo.

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