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Questions Grow Over Race Discipline Report


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, for a lot of kids, basketball isn't just something to do. It's a way out and up. But are some of the coaches working with the youngest players looking out for the kids' interests or their own? We'll ask the author of "Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine." That conversation is coming up in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about some of the difficulties many young men of color are facing in the classroom. A new report from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights suggests that school discipline policies may not be color blind. African-American students, particularly boys, are far more likely to be expelled or suspended from school than students of other races. The report also detailed disparities in the quality of classes offered to minority students and the pay offered to teachers in schools that serve more children of color.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined now by Russlynn Ali. She is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. She worked closely on the study, and she's with us once again. Welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us again.

RUSSLYNN ALI: Thank you, Michel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Now the report covers more than discipline, and we're going to get to some of those issues in a minute. But discipline is where we want to start. According to this report, black students made up 18 percent of those covered in the survey. But black students were at 35 percent of those who were suspended from school, and 39 percent of those expelled. And the report said that black boys in particular were at greater risk. Can you just give us a sense of why you think that is?

ALI: Well, Michel, it's really hard to find one reason or answer for these disturbing trends we're seeing across the country. Some of it, unfortunately, as we've seen over the last couple of years in our investigations does have to do with different treatment on the basis of race. Sometimes we see students with the very same offenses, the very same history, receiving very different punishments.

But that does not explain these very disturbing trends and the story that these data portends. Something else is happening here. What is terribly exciting about these data is we are now armed with the ammunition to find out what else is happening.

MARTIN: When this report came out, the secretary of education, your boss Arnie Duncan, said, quote, "The undeniable truth is that the every day education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise," unquote. Why did he say that?

ALI: Because when we look at these data and, as you mentioned, Michel, what we released is what we're calling an opportunity gap tool. Data about the experiences that students have as they journey through pre-kindergarten, elementary school, middle, and high school, what courses are they getting, what resources are we providing them. And across the board on most of these indicators, students of color get less of everything that we know makes a difference in public education. That is a question of fundamental fairness.

MARTIN: You know, you can see where some people might argue or question whether race is the determining factor here or if race is a proxy for something else. So, the question I would have is, do you know whether, say, students in the same school were treated differently, in the same community were treated differently? So, you can really isolate race as being the variable.

ALI: That's a very good question. From these data, we cannot tell that. We know trends about suspension. We know much more than we ever knew before. Who's been suspended once, who's been suspended more than once, whether students are referred to law enforcement, whether they are arrested in school. But we don't know for what types of offenses and we don't know, in all cases, of students that are treated differently for the very same activity. We have to ask ourselves further. And educators across the country, we hope, will look at these data, do some self-analyses about their schools and ask themselves these same questions, and then set about changing these disturbing patterns.

MARTIN: How would you recommend they go about doing that?

ALI: We've provided some supports in the Department of Education. Things like positive behavioral interventions and supports. Alternative strategies to disciplinary actions, supports to ensure that the school environment is healthy, that teachers have classroom management professional development to help deal with these problems.

As we've seen, and I've talked to educators across the country, they will tell me things like: I'm trying to manage an already too crowded classroom. The easiest thing for me to do is put the problem child outside of my classroom to get the business of learning done for the kids that want to learn. While that might be understandable in those instantaneous decisions, we have to ensure that those kids that we call problem kids still get learning supports to stay in school.

MARTIN: You have to ask how much is conscious and how much of it is unconscious that the same behavior that a child who looks one way might exhibit might be viewed in a certain way. But the same behavior that another child exhibits might be viewed in a very different way. It's kind of the saggy pants syndrome, if you don't mind my calling it that.

I mean, there are people who would say well, you know, the kid might be an NBA superstar's kid, but if his pants are sagging, you know, he's going to get followed in the mall. And it's just something that certain behavior, as expressed by certain people, just evokes a different reaction. Do you think that that might be possible? Or do you think that there are again other factors at work, because I think some people are used to thinking of discrimination as being a conscious act and some people suggest that perhaps it isn't.

ALI: I think we are, in fact, seeing that. We are seeing perhaps it's ignorance, perhaps it's a lack of understanding, perhaps it's a need for acceptance of different cultures. But we have seen in some of our investigations instances where the very same activity, it yields a different response on behalf of the adults in some of those cultural presumptions do enter into the fray.

But it's precisely these kinds of conversations that we are also seeing educators have with these data, where they're looking at them and they get a big aha and a heavy heart for not realizing that sometimes they are making those somewhat bias decisions.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you can see where people would look at this data and say: Well, so what if a child is acting out as you put it or behaving in a way that comprises the educational experience for other kids? I don't care what color he is, he needs to go. He or she - but as you point out mainly he - needs to go because every child's educational experience is compromised by poor behavior. And what do you say to that?

ALI: That's right, too. You cannot rush to judgment around these data. Equalizing disciplinary rates is not the fix to these patterns. It's going to require a community effort, a student effort, a parent effort, an educator effort, and certainly Washington needs to support those efforts. But these data tell us there's no one problem, there's no one solution, but we know for sure that if students aren't in school they can't learn.

MARTIN: We're talking about racial disparities and discipline and other aspects of American schools. Our guest is Russlynn Ali. She's the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

I want to switch gears a little bit, but it's a related subject. You spoken previously on this program about bullying and the need to take school bullying seriously. A lot of jurisdictions now are looking at criminalizing this behavior or taking more stringent action against this kind of behavior, sanctioning it more strongly.

And I'm wondering if you are at all concerned now that you're at the apex of both of these issues, whether one is fighting the other? I mean, if you increase law enforcement scrutiny of school behavior under the rubric of bullying, are you concerned that then sends more kids into the system and triggers more disciplinary responses, which then people will consider discriminatory?

ALI: Discipline and ensuring that students feel safe doesn't necessarily mean that students have to be kicked out of school. We have seen alternate disciplinary strategies that help to ensure students are reprimanded for bad behavior, also work to fix the culture of schools so that all students feel safe and that kind of bullying and harassment isn't tolerated. But it doesn't have to be a zero sum game. In order to make all students feel safe you don't in turn have to kick out most students, certainly not students of a certain race or sex.

MARTIN: What is the Department of Education doing to support this kind of nuanced approach that you would say would be the ideal, from what I'm hearing you say.

ALI: We have, for the last couple of years, been working to support educators in the field with ensuring dollars can be used to support better school environment and alternative to disciplinary action strategies by ensuring that, where appropriate, enforce the civil rights laws vigorously to ensure that these practices are implemented with fundamental fairness. We release these data in the spirit of transparency, almost simultaneously to when we received it.

MARTIN: Just in the couple of minutes that we have left, I want to move a little bit away from discipline and talk about teachers and resources. The report finds that teachers in schools with a lot of minority students are getting paid less than their colleagues in mainly white schools, even in the same district. Why might that be?

ALI: How much teachers get paid is a function, usually, of a lock step single salary schedule. Things like how many years of experience they have, how many credentials they have, how many master's degrees or higher education degrees they have, so that's one of the causes of these disparities. That, though, is linked to patterns where we see almost everywhere across the country, that schools that serve mostly African-American and Latino students employ most of the teachers that are newest to the profession.

Those teachers - their salaries are a lot less than experienced teachers that are clustered in schools serving mostly affluent and white students.

MARTIN: So is it that the more experienced teachers get, the more likely they are to move to majority white districts or is it that the teachers in majority white districts tend to stay there long enough to aggregate more salary, whereas there's more turnover in the minority heavy districts?

ALI: Both. There's more turnover in the minority heavy districts, in part because the teachers leave.

MARTIN: OK. And, finally, Hispanic and African-American majority schools are also offering fewer high level courses, like calculus and physics, than white majority schools. And, again, what do we know about why this happens? And do you see a remedy?

ALI: That is a hugely important concern, especially as we work to achieve the president's goal that, by 2020, we will lead the world once again in the percentage of college graduates. If students are not ready for college by the time they graduate high school, they will be ill-prepared to succeed in the demands of post-secondary work, whether they're in an apprenticeship program or a two or four year college.

It is also hard to know why that is, but for sure, we know that schools serving mostly African-American and Latino students, now, for the first time ever, we know that they are far less likely to have those higher rigor courses.

Some say it's because we don't have the resources to have the labs and the supports and the interventions in those schools. Some say, unfortunately, it's because kids can't do it. But we know that that myth has been debunked, because when we provide students with those rigorous courses and the supports they and their teachers need to succeed, they will soar.

MARTIN: Russlynn Ali is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. She was kind enough to join us here in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Assistant Secretary Ali, thank you for joining us once again.

ALI: Thank you, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, it's time for March Madness with college basketball's finest on the road to the final four, but a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author is asking whether the youth leagues that feed the system are doing the game more harm than good.

GEORGE DOHRMANN: The players that are coming out of this grass roots system are so lacking in fundamentals, so lacking in morals, so lacking in the lessons that we think of that sports teaches.

MARTIN: The author of "Play Their Hearts Out" is with us. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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