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Kaskubar: Disciplinary consistency is a good thing

October 7, 2017 GMT

School discipline is back in the news. A recent Post-Bulletin story told us of the Rochester Public Schools’ work to improve consistency across the district for definitions of, and responses to, student misbehavior.

Improvement and consistency are good things. What’s not a good thing is miscategorizing disciplinary discrepancies as racism, as was done earlier this year. As discipline efforts continue, let’s be sure we’re solving real problems.

A study commissioned by the RPS found ethnicity-based discrepancies in the application of student discipline. Disciplinary actions include being sent (i.e., referred) to the office and being suspended. The RPS study looked at office referrals based on their number of occurrences by grade level, ethnicity, gender, and some special education categories.

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The Office Referrals chart shows each ethnicity’s percentage of the student population and of their office referrals. The line shows the Out of Whack Index (OWI) that measures how much more, or less, members of each ethnic group were sent to the office compared to their representation in the student population. (The study didn’t call it OWI.) An OWI less than 1 indicates a lower rate of office referrals than the overall population. An OWI greater than 1 indicates a higher rate.

Because the OWI for black students was greater than any other, the district has been said to have a racism problem. The analysis’ primary author declared, “We have a disparity that’s due to race.” A Rochester for Justice leader asserted, “The difficulty we have around the issue is actually calling it what it is. That’s racism.”

Balderdash.

Are the OWI values different by ethnic group? Yes. Does the data tell us it is due to racism? No. If it did, it also tells us the school district is sexist: The OWI ratio of male compared with female students is almost as great (3.3) as between black and white (3.8) students.

Nobody noticed? Nobody cares about sexism in our schools? If you think those are silly questions, good, because based on the data, they are no sillier than the claim of racism. I understand that black and Hispanic students are the subject of proactive measures to reduce the discrepancy. Shouldn’t male students be, too? More silliness? No sillier than working on proactive responses to misdiagnosed racism.

Looking at similar data from the National Basketball Association, we see that most NBA players are black. Using the same analysis on NBA rosters as for school discipline, we have a roster OWI for black players of 6:3, considerably greater than the RPS discipline OWI for black students. Is the NBA racist?

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If they follow the data as they did for their study, its authors and Rochester for Justice would have to say yes; this data analysis and result are equivalent. But I doubt they would say that. I wouldn’t.

People are not incensed about the NBA’s roster disparity because we understand that teams consider other things not reflected in the data to choose players -- things like ball handling, shooting, and rebounding -- factors relevant to playing basketball.

Just as there are skills that make a good basketball player, there are behaviors that deserve discipline. What was shockingly and inexcusably missing from the discipline study was any attempt to quantify the degree to which students actually misbehaved and whether the discipline was justified based on the behavior. In basketball terms, can he or she play? In discipline terms, did he or she do it? The report didn’t even present the question much less attempt to answer it.

If we are suspending students for behaviors for which suspension is appropriate, there is no problem with discipline (or justice), there is a problem with student behavior, or suspension guidelines, or a combination of both.

Avoiding or ignoring real issues and pertinent facts makes our leadership and consultants no better than quacks. If our esteemed Mayo brothers and their early partners had practiced medicine the way our school district, their consultants, and social justice advocates have analyzed data, the only thing they’d be known for is snake oil.

Efforts going forward should concentrate on a healthy environment for all students that includes high expectations and accomplishment. Discipline is a good thing. Disciplinary consistency is a good thing. Continuous improvement is a good thing. Accusing an entire education system of racism due solely to a misguided “analysis” is a bad thing.

Let’s take care to see and solve real problems, not prejudiced ones.

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