When a Tiny Fraction of Teachers File Most School Discipline Referrals
Education wonks have long raised the alarm about how school discipline is applied unequally among students of different racial and ethnic groups, with Black students facing a disproportionate number of office discipline referrals (ODRs). The effects of such practices can reverberate throughout a student’s life, according to the American Psychological Association, leading to worse mental health and lower grades.
“We know Black students are punished more frequently and more harshly, but what we didn’t really know was how much all of this discipline was shared across educators versus perpetuated by just a few educators,” says Emily K. Penner, an associate professor of education in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine.
Penner is part of a group of researchers who shed new light on this problem after they were able to pinpoint how a small number of teachers in one California district effectively doubled the discipline gap between white and Black students. The study on “frequent teacher referrers” was published in the journal Education Researcher this summer.
Jing Liu, assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland College Park, says that he and his fellow researchers were surprised by their findings. That’s in no small part because of what he says is a first in this field of research: access to data with a uniquely high level of detail that allowed the team to track how many office referrals were issued by individual teachers.
“It’s concerning that they’re just a small population of teachers [who are] much more likely to make a referral,” Liu says. “It points to our need to understand: Why are there such a small population of teachers making referrals, and how can we help them to stop this troubling pattern?”
The study also found that the ODR gap is being driven in particular by office referrals issued for interpersonal and defiance reasons, “which are arguably more likely to be subject to bias” compared to other less subjective circumstances, like fights.
Penner’s past policy work has examined the factors within education that harm students of certain races.
“We’ve just started to have this conversation about the role of educators, in particular, in school discipline,” she says. “A lot of the research about school discipline has really been on the student side, mostly thinking about outcomes for students. But really, it’s not just a one-sided thing. There’s a whole institution with individuals in it that also contributes to what happens for school discipline for students.”
For Penner, the study’s findings open questions about the circumstances surrounding teachers who are high referrers. Is there a policy making them feel like they have to issue referrals, she offers, or are there particular school settings that lead to it? For instance, could their classrooms be in areas where more fights tend to break out?
The data covers four school years from fall 2016 through spring 2020 at a “large, diverse, urban-intensive school district in California,” as described in the paper. Liu says district leaders approached researchers with the data because of their desire to investigate inequity within student discipline at the school, and the conversation around referrals began with the district department that deals with student well-being.
“From reading the literature, we quickly find that lots of research on student discipline focuses on suspension, which is the end result of the discipline processes,” Liu says. “I really think that understanding the referrals — who are making them, who are receiving those referrals — can really help us to go a step further to understand the origins, the sources, of racial disparities in school discipline.”
Who Is in the Top 5 Percent?
Taking a step back to look at all the teachers who worked at the school district during the four years captured by the data, about one-third of them sent at least one student to the office with an ODR during any given school year. About half of those teachers issued five or fewer referrals during the time frame.
Researchers analyzed the gaps in the number of office referrals issued to white students and their peers in different racial and ethnic groups. (The data did not include suspension rates, which researchers describe as a disciplinary outcome of ODRs.) They were able to see the impact of teacher “top referrers” by starting the analysis with only teachers who issued one or two office referrals, then adding teachers who issued three to five referrals to the sample, watching how the number of referrals issued to each ethnic group changed as teachers who issued higher numbers of referrals became part of the sample.
When the top 5 percent of referrers — teachers who issued 46 or more ODRs in a school year — were added to the sample, the gaps in disciplinary action between student racial groups spiked.
The top 5 percent of referring teachers were responsible for creating the widest discipline gap between Black and white students. Before they were added to the sample, the data showed that Black students were issued 1.6 ODRs for every one ODR issued to white students. After the top 5 percent of referring teachers were added, that ratio jumped to 3.4 office referrals for Black students for every one issued to white students.
Top referrers gave Black and Hispanic students an outsized share of ODRs relative to the proportion of Black and Hispanic students in their classes, according to the study.
Black students made up only 7 percent of students in the district and 12 percent of students in top-referring teachers’ classrooms. However, the analysis found Black students made up 22 percent of all students who received ODRs and 27 percent of students sent to the office by top-referring teachers.
While still disproportionate, the racial gaps were less severe between white students and students from other groups, such as Hispanic and Asian students.
Researchers also found that teachers who were white, early in their careers, and teaching at middle schools to be “the ones who engage more in extensive referring,” the study says.
“I think in middle school, there’s just a lot of new routines and developmental changes that are happening for students, lots of different kinds of boundary-testing and escalated expectations in terms of self- management,” Penner says. “A disproportionate number of folks in the top 5 percent were novice teachers, so it does underscore the need for continued support and in-service preparation around classroom management, around routines for supporting disruptive students and engaging with them.”
Black and Hispanic teachers were less likely than their white colleagues to both issue an office referral and to be in the ranks of top referrers. Asian teachers were even less likely to issue a referral but were just as likely as white teachers to rank among top-referring teachers, “suggesting varied referring behavior among Asian teachers.”
Liu says when it comes to teaching experience, teachers notably rely less on office disciplinary referrals once they reach 11 years in the profession. The data shows that the number of times teachers sent students to the office began to fall once they hit three years of experience.
There’s still work to be done to understand why some teachers are reaching for office referrals so frequently.
“We think it’s very possible that new teachers are coached to follow a procedure around what happens with student discipline,” Penner explains. “A more veteran teacher would kind of know how to massage the situation or react to students in a way that could de-escalate things, and a [novice] teacher might not have that in their repertoire yet.”
Since the publication of the study, Liu says more school district leaders have reached out to ask the researchers for a similar analysis of their office referral data, including a partnership that’s in the works with a school district in North Carolina.
As for the California district that’s the subject of the recent study, Liu says that the research team is working with the school district to identify teachers in the top 5 percent of referrers — not to punish them, but to learn what’s contributing to their high rate of ODRs and find ways to support them.
“We may need to provide more support to junior teachers, [assign them] a less challenging student body, or more target PD for those teachers,” Liu says, “but by identifying this group of teachers who are more likely to be referrers, we’re more likely to reduce the number of referrals and racial gaps.”