Increasing teachers’ sensitivity to student needs and use of instruction focused on higher order thinking eliminates racial gaps in discipline referrals
Schools throughout the nation are plagued with disparities in discipline rates; suspension rates for African American students are over twice as high as students from other racial and ethnic groups. Being suspended is associated with many negative long-term effects, such as an increased likelihood of dropping out of school or becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Previous studies have found that interventions aimed at middle school teachers that focus on promoting empathic mindsets about student misbehavior can reduce racial gaps in suspension rates. While these results are promising, are there other ways to reduce suspensions and improve relationships between teachers and students in ways that promote greater trust and belonging, particularly among marginalized groups?
Previously, there have been few experimental studies indicating that professional development for teachers can reduce suspension rates and the persistent racial disparities in which students are most frequently suspended. A new experimental study by Anne Gregory and colleagues found that a teacher coaching program aimed at improving classroom practices was able to eliminate gaps in suspension rates between African American high school students and their peers. The coaching program (My Teaching Partner – Secondary or MTP-S) used in this study was a long-term program that paired teachers with coaches who helped them create classroom environments that were both academically challenging and emotionally positive. MTP-S is an adaptation of a program originally designed for pre-K and early elementary school classrooms.
A previous experimental study using this program found that it was effective in eliminating the gaps in discipline referrals for the participating teachers in year 1. The present study aimed to further explore why this change occurred and whether the program would continue to have a similar effect when the teacher worked with a second group of students (Year 2) and after the teacher was no longer participating in the coaching program (Year 3).
What did the researchers find when they tracked these same teachers for two more years?
Teachers who were randomly assigned to participate in the MTP-S program:
- Had reduced referral rates for all students in Years 2 & 3, as compared to non-participating teachers
- Did not have racial gaps in discipline referrals during Years 2 & 3
- Had the largest decreases in referral rates for African American students
When looking at the teacher practices tracked during this program, the researchers found two components were associated with the changes in discipline referrals: teacher sensitivity and academic instruction focused on analysis and inquiry. This suggests that teachers who improved their ability to create positive classroom environments that were attuned to students’ needs and those who were able to provide instruction that required students to use high-level thinking processes were more likely to see changes in discipline rates. While these improvements positively affected all students, they were most beneficial to African American students.
These results suggest that MTP-S can be a useful tool in promoting more equitable discipline practices. Powerfully, this program was able to decrease racial discipline gaps without explicitly having teachers focus on improving their relationships with a certain group of students, but rather through strengthening interactions with all their students.