The Good Side of the Suspension Gap

A recently released report has spawned new outrage over an old problem: Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended from school than white students.

The knee-jerk reaction to this finding is to think it unjust, reflective of lingering racism among school principals and disciplinarians, and no doubt a contributor to the achievement gap.

If you believe that, ask yourself if you also believe the following things:

1. There are many students - of all races - who walk the straight and narrow path without being prodded. There are also some, of all races, who cause trouble, but the threat of punishment keeps them in line at least to some extent.

2. The presence of disruptive students in a classroom makes it more difficult for other students to learn.

3. Students who grow up in tough circumstances - with a single parent in the household, or in a foster family - are probably at higher risk of acting out.

4. The average school principal - or, more precisely, the average principal in a predominantly black or Hispanic school - is probably unlikely to be a bigoted racist.

If these statements seem reasonable to you, then you should also believe the following: The school discipline gap does not exacerbate the test score gap. In fact, closing the school discipline gap would make the test score gap worse.

How do we move from statements one through four to that radical conclusion? The key is paying attention to the work of University of Rochester economist Joshua Kinsler, who has found evidence to support each of the four points. Here's the logic that ties them together.

Blacks and whites who attend the same school, as it turns out, are not treated all that differently when they misbehave. Yet there is a school discipline gap. The reason is that predominantly black schools are harsher on all students. You might think this is racist, but Kinsler's work shows that black principals and white principals alike are tougher on kids in predominantly black schools. That supports point 4.

Kinsler's work further offers some insight into why harsh discipline is the name of the game in these schools. Because of racial economic inequality, these schools tend to have a higher proportion of high-risk kids - the ones who grow up in tough circumstances. That supports point 3.

Kinsler's work also shows that high-risk kids behave better under a harsh discipline regime. So tough disciplinary standards are neither arbitrary nor capricious; they are a tool principals use rationally to manage potential behavior problems. That's point 2.

Finally, Kinsler shows that removing a highly disruptive child from a classroom - by suspending that child, in- or out-of-school, helps the other children in the classroom focus on their studies. So that means principals aren't just going after bad behavior. They want to create an environment where students can learn.

It is true that keeping the misbehaving child out of the classroom deprives him (and it's usually a him) of learning opportunities, but principals value the needs of the many above the needs of the one. And who can blame them. That's point 1.

So consider what happens if we eliminate racial disparities in school punishment, for example, by banning suspensions. The whole system unravels. In the schools with few high-risk students, nothing much changes. In the more disadvantaged schools, behavior worsens, misbehaving students remain in their classrooms and disrupt the learning of their classmates to a greater extent. Academic performance worsens in the disadvantaged school but stays about the same in the more advantaged school. And just like that, the test score gap widens.

You might be skeptical of my rhetorical sleight of hand, but Kinsler's work, published or accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals, is based on sound data analysis.

Another way to think about it is this. Do you trust the principal in your child's school? Do you think that person has the best interests of your child at heart? If so, why would you advocate removing a tool - a blunt one, to be sure, but a tool nonetheless - from the toolbox of strategies available to help all children reach their highest potential?

School administrators don't always get things right; the honest ones will be the first to tell you that. But without strong evidence to the contrary, it is certainly reasonable to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Jacob Vigdor is a professor of public policy and economics. This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.