The Rise (& Rise) of the Discipline Gap
We'll need to recognize that the American education system was designed to punish children for not being White
G.S. Potter, PhD | Senior Editor
In 2010, the term “discipline gap” was coined by researchers to describe the observation that students who weren’t White, particularly Black students, were punished more frequently and more severely than those who were White. For example, Black girls are six times as likely to be suspended as White girls, and Black boys are three times as likely to be suspended as White boys.
There are those who would argue that Black students commit more disciplinary infractions than White students. However, studies comparing what happens to White students when they violate school policy to what happens to Black students confirms what’s really happening: Black students are, actually, dealt harsher punishments than White students for the same infractions. Therefore, the argument that Black students are somehow naturally pre-disposed to bad behavior holds no water.
In order to understand the discipline gap, it is important to recognize that while there is one public school system, there are two different models of education being applied within it. One is for White students. The other is for students who aren’t White.
Mann vs. Pratt
The history of White public education in the United States is not the same history as Indigenous, Black and Latino public education in the United States. White schools evolved from the Prussian model of education. As educator Ira David Socol points out ….
Born of Prussia’s military failings in the Napoleonic Wars, the German kingdom developed an “education” system designed to indoctrinate children, year-by-year, from age 6-to-16, into full compliance with the state and its military leaders. The point was, bluntly, to ensure that “no German soldier would ever disobey an order again.”
This model was designed during the Industrial Revolution in order to produce a more obedient military, prepare laborers for participation in the new workforce, and ensure citizens were assimilated into their place in the working class. It was brought to the United States in 1852 by Horace Mann, who is commonly referred to as the forefather of the American education system. He believed …
Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.
The nation at the time, though, believed the Indigenous populations were to be exterminated and Black folks were to be enslaved. As a result, this system was shaped to promote communities that adopted White working class values, assimilated into White working class culture, and showed proficiency in White working class skills.
The education systems constructed for Indigenous, Black and Latino children were not derived from the Prussian model. They were extensions of the Pratt model. This model was designed by Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt. He is most famous for uttering the line, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” At least that is how history has rewritten those words.
The full quote is …
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres . In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
In efforts to “kill the Indian,” Pratt opened the Carlisle Industrial School in 1879. It would spawn a movement that would lead to the opening of more than 350 government and church-run boarding schools across the United States. The children were often taken forcibly from their parents and put through systems of punishment designed to dismantle connections to their families and their cultures. They were given European names upon their arrival. Speaking their languages was forbidden. Putting needles through the tongues of indigenous children was a common punishment for students that violated this rule. Their traditional clothing was taken and their hair was cut.
National Geographic recounts …
Zitkála-Šá was eight years old when the missionaries came. Lured from the South Dakota Yankton Indian Reservation with promises of adventure, comfort, and an education, in 1884 the girl went willingly to Wabash, Indiana, to attend a Quaker-run boarding school dedicated to training Native American children.
Then she realized the teachers who had taken her traditional clothing upon her arrival wanted to cut her hair, too. Proud of her long black hair and raised to associate short cuts with the shame of captured warriors, Zitkála-Šá snuck away from the other children. But the adults found her hiding place. They dragged the kicking child into another room and tied her to a chair.
I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” she wrote in her 1921 memoir American Indian Stories. “Then I lost my spirit.” Renamed Gertrude by the missionaries, Zitkála-Šá would go on to live most of the rest of her childhood at boarding schools for Native students. (Zitkála-Šá went on to fight for suffrage for women and Native Americans.)”
Residential Schools were not created to invite native communities to participate as equals and assimilate into American culture as friends. The Indian Wars waged on. Indigenous people and communities were seen as enemies to slaughter. Pratt himself fought in these wars and led many in the battle to eradicate Indigenous peoples. Scalps were still being collected for bounty. The Indigenous were not even considered citizens or granted the right to vote until 1924.
The residential schools were military experiments designed to eliminate the cultures of tribes, subjugate the remaining Indigenous people, and exploit what was left of their bodies in the lowest tiers of the manual workforce.
Children were taught skills that would force them into the fields and manual service labor while keeping them out of industrialized, administrative and high-skill positions reserved for White people. Girls were taught how to do laundry for White people. They were taught to cook the foods they liked and how to take care of their farm animals. Boys were taught blacksmithing and other forms of manual labor like field work and farming.
Students in these “schools” were subject to violent physical and sexual abuse. They were starved, beaten, and subjected to lethal diseases that spread rampantly through these notoriously unhygienic institutions. In Canada, an estimated 4000 – 6000 children died in their residential schools. No formal attempt, to date, has been made to identify the number of Indigenous children killed in Pratt-modeled schools in the United States. Calls for this research, however, grow louder. There are 189 children known to have died at the Carlisle school alone.
While White children were being molded for placement in the working class positions provided by the Industrial Revolution, Indigenous children were still being scalped, murdered, and in some cases “educated” - or forcibly indoctrinated - into indentured servitude. This system of violence, social stratification and subjugation masking as education was eventually extended to Latinos and Black Americans.
Segregation & Desegregation
In California and Texas, for example, White people were trying to figure out how to exploit Latino labor, assert moral and social superiority, and prevent the political and economic advancement of Mexican people. School segregation and the application of Pratt-modeled assimilation tactics proved very useful. According to the Texas State Historical Association …
During early statehood, Mexican children had no access to public schools. However, by the 1880s they increasingly had access to rural schools, and in the 1890s Mexican working-class children in urban areas were admitted to city schools. In both cases access was limited to segregated classes in the elementary grades. No secondary or postsecondary facilities were available to them. Only the children of wealthy families attended colleges and universities. The decision to segregate elementary schools in Texas was due to racial prejudice, residential location, and lack of a Mexican-American voice in school affairs. Public education in Texas, as elsewhere in the nation, increasingly promoted the Anglo heritage over the Mexican heritage. This policy reflected pan-Protestantism, values, and core British values. Assimilationist policy included English-only laws, efforts to eliminate "sectarianism" in the schools, and a standardized curriculum. These policies excluded Mexican culture, community, Catholicism, and the Spanish language from the schools.
By 1931, 80 percent of the school districts in California and Texas were officially segregated, while 20 percent were segregated through excuses such as a lack of English proficiency. And so Latinos were sorted out of positions that required skills beyond an elementary education and segregated into Pratt-modeled schools that punished language and culture in the name of assimilation.
Of course, schools for Black children were explicitly segregated from schools for White children. Education for Black people, in fact, was for a long time illegal. Learning was for White children - but, obeying was for Black children. In a number of states across the country, it was illegal to teach Black people to read. That changed after the Civil War when Black folks were legally granted freedom, citizenship and protections (while limited) from discrimination. White people didn’t want Black people in their Prussian-styled White schools, though. They segregated Black children into Pratt-modeled Black schools.
The Black schools built were intentionally dilapidated and unclean. The textbooks allowed were most often tattered hand-me-downs from White schools. Civic education was eliminated in most cases for fear that Black children would learn that they had rights and those rights were being denied. Often, students of all ages were crowded into one room with one teacher – a dramatic departure from the Prussian system, but a hallmark of the Pratt-model. In many places, there were no Black schools at all.
According to America’s Black Holocaust Museum ….
There were not as many public schools available for blacks. If a town did not have enough money for two separate schools, they built only one school – for white children. This was especially true in the rural towns, because most rural towns had little money.
These schools were intended to mirror the Prussian model in part. Yet, they adopted the Pratt model’s focus on skill attainment levels that would prepare Black children to take their place in White society, but: as subjugated adults and reliance on infrastructures barely efficient enough to sustain survival, let alone encourage learning.
In 1954, public schools were legally desegregated with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Ed. Unfortunately, nearly 70 years later, the education system is still functionally segregated.
According to the Economic Policy Institute …
[O]nly about one in eight white students (12.9 percent) attends a school where a majority of students are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian. … In contrast, nearly seven in 10 Black children (69.2 percent) attend such schools …. Black students are also in economically segregated schools. Less than one in three White students (31.3 percent) attend a high-poverty school, compared with more than seven in 10 black students (72.4 percent).
Pew Research Center further reports …
In the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 79% percent of White elementary and secondary public school students went to schools where at least half of their peers were also White. In that year, more than half of Hispanic students (56 percent) and 42 percent of Black students also attended schools where half the students or more shared their race or ethnicity. This includes those who attend traditional public schools and public charter schools.
As the “Whites Only” and “No dogs, negros, or Mexicans” signs came down, different strategies for exclusion cropped up. While it became illegal to segregate by race, it was still legal to segregate by class. And so students of color remain largely separated into Black and Brown schools that continue the Pratt tradition of underfunding and dilapidation. The tradition that was not allowed to continue, though, was access to Black teachers.
Before Brown vs. Board (1954) an upwards of 50 percent of the teaching workforce was Black. While separate was not equal, there was a cultural competence and solidarity that many Black students were afforded than after desegregation. After Brown, Black students would fall under the authority of White teachers and Black teachers would be purged from the system.
In the South, for example, the share of Black teachers fell close to 32 percent between 1964 and 1972. And today, only 7 percent of teachers are Black, 9 percent are Latino, and 79 percent are White. Many of them were then and are still, to this very day, racist.
The education system continued to serve its function sorting students into their preassigned positions inside (and outside) of society. After Brown, White teachers played an increasingly important role in deciding who would get to occupy working and middle class positions, and who would go to jail and be trapped in poverty. Two of the most important sorting tools White teachers have are suspensions and expulsions.
In the education system, White teachers that don’t want Black, Latino and Indigenous students in their classroom have the ability to expel and suspend them. Because the Pratt model of education was absorbed into the public school system, they were encouraged to enforce punishments for failing to embody Whiteness.
According to Brookings …
Black students are disciplined at a rate four times higher than any other racial or ethnic group. Further, our research has found that 70 percent of all suspension disciplines are discretionary. Specifically, Black students are more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons such as dress code or long hair violations, neither of which have been found to be predictive of student misconduct.
Discretionary suspensions are not ‘required’ by law, yet they pose dire consequences to students of color.
Discretionary suspension based on hairstyles and dress code is another failed opportunity our public education and the criminal justice system could have leveraged to better understand its students’ cultural differences. It’s one of the last connections to a history all but washed away through the middle passage, integration, and assimilation.
Suspensions have powerful effects on student achievement. Just one suspension can double a student’s chances of dropping out. Less than 40 percent of students with 2 suspensions graduate and that number drops to less than one-quarter for students with four or more suspensions. Pushing children out of the education system has clear effects on their socioeconomic trajectories as adults.
One quarter of the formerly incarcerated do not have a high school diploma or a GED. Over half were unable to enter college. Youth who don’t finish high school or attain a GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than those that aren’t forced out of the education system. The median weekly wage of full time workers without a high school diploma is $520, while the median income of those that did graduate high school but did not attend college is $712.
For students of color, hostile and unequipped learning environments also ensure that they are denied the skills needed to compete with White students in society.
Only 18 percent of Black fourth graders scored at or above reading proficiency in 2019. The reading proficiency rates for Indigenous and Latino fourth graders is 20 percent and 22 percent respectively. For White fourth graders, it’s 44 percent.
Without the ability to read, options become extremely limited: 85 percent of youth in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and two-thirds of students that haven’t reached reading proficiency by fourth grade will end up incarcerated or on welfare. About 75 percent of the prison population is illiterate. And according to Forbes …
The average annual income of adults who are at the minimum proficiency level for literacy (Level 3) is nearly $63,000, significantly higher than the average of roughly $48,000 earned by adults who are just below proficiency (Level 2) and much higher than those at the lowest levels of literacy (Levels 0 and 1), who earn just over $34,000 on average.
White teachers aren’t just suspending and expelling Black, Brown and Indigenous students because of their color, they are sentencing them to a lifetime of inescapable economic and social trauma.
Finding a Way Out
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of the inequities that students face in the education system. But it also gave many students of color the opportunity to escape the daily micro and macro agressions they face in their brick and mortar schools and classrooms. In April of 2020, for example, only 3 percent of Black households permanently home-schooled their children. By October of that same year, that number rose to 16 percent. Among Black parents surveyed in a 2021 report
… 82 percent cited COVID-19 as one factor for keeping their children home and 43 percent said they were concerned about bullying, racism and low academic standards ….
Many parents have found refuge in more culturally competent online programs such as Stride (formerly K12). Others, in states like California, Michigan and Ohio, are turning to individually-tailored, hybrid and trauma-informed models like Learn for Life, where the success rates reach 86 percent, especially for many Black and Brown students who either failing in traditional school districts or were on the verge of detaching from those systems altogether.
Attempts at passing policies to curb race-based suspensions and expulsions have also been made. For example, in 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act. This act required each state to collect and report data on discipline and present alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. As a result, some states have banned suspensions for minor offenses. Still, progress made through ESSA was abruptly stalled as the subsequent Trump administration wasted little time in overhauling it. Similarly, while the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), legislation prohibiting the punishment of students based on hair texture or style, has not been passed at the federal level, it has passed in California and is being considered in seven other states.
Other efforts to curb the use of the Pratt model of education include the push to eliminate zero-tolerance polices which account for approximately 10 percent of the racial discipline gap, provide diversity and inclusion training for teachers, and increase the use of alternatives to suspension and expulsion.
These efforts alone will not be enough to make schools safe places for Black, Brown and Indigenous children. So long as the Pratt model of social sorting and subjugation is being applied to students of color, they will continue to be punished for not being White. Until Black, Brown and Indigenous children are able to benefit from learning from Black, Brown, and Indigenous teachers, they will continue being subject to the biases and overtly racist whims of their White teachers. The education system was designed to sort and subjugate children of color, to put them out-of-reach of opportunities and to force them under the authority of their White counterparts. Until we recognize that the education system was designed to punish children for not being White and to push them into the lowest tiers of society, we won’t be able to make the dramatic changes necessary to finally close the discipline gap.