In Print: Volume 88: Number 4
By Michelle Parthum
88 Wash. U. L. Rev. 1021 (2011)
It is well recognized that America is facing a crisis in public education. Nationwide, black and Latino students suffer from an achievement gap compared with white and Asian students: black and Latino students perform worse on standardized tests, have lower high school graduation rates, and have lower college attendance and graduation rates than white and Asian students. This reality is connected to many other disturbing national trends, such as the disproportionate incarceration rate of black and Latino men and the disproportionateunemployment levels for black and Latino adults. It is clear that our nation‘s schools are not helping all children to succeed.
Much attention has rightly been paid to the achievement gap in the last few decades. Politicians, scholars, parents, and teachers have come to realize that the achievement gap is a critical civil rights issue and have begun discussing ways that it could be overcome. This attention and conversation is essential. Over time, the focus has narrowed to “outputs,” the actual rate of student achievement as indicated by standardized tests. However, there are important characteristics of a child‘s schooling that have not found their way into conversations about academic outputs, and these issues deserve to be discussed alongside the very important topic of student achievement.
One such issue is student behavior and discipline within the school environment. It is true that in the wake of several highly publicized incidents of school violence in the last fifteen years, student behavior in schools has received periods of passing attention from politicians and the media. However, there is a phenomenon of school violence that has received very little attention or discussion, and it is essential that these conversations begin to take place. This phenomenon is the everyday violence of inner-city schools populated predominantly by black and Latino students. These schools are plagued with violence and behavioral disruptions that dwarf such incidents at suburban schools attended predominantly by white and Asian students. The culture of disruption and violence in these schools is troubling for many reasons. Incidents of violence and behavioral disruptions take away the instructional time so desperately needed by students in these schools. The frequency of these incidents creates a school culture of chaos and disruption, undermining the learning environment. Incidents of disruption and violence normalize antisocial behavior in students and prevent these schools from fulfilling one of their obligations to students and parents: training students to become productive members of society. This is evident in a phenomenon called the school-to-prison pipeline, which posits that inner-city schools have become staging grounds for the acts of violence that will land their students in prison. This issue is critically important to the social and emotional development of students in inner-city schools, as well as to their academic progress. It is for this reason that a discussion of school discipline belongs within a conversation about academic attainment and the achievement gap faced by black and Latino students. School discipline is an essential factor contributing to this achievement gap, and until this problem is addressed, the achievement gap will not close.
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