Five Percent of School Teachers Account for More Than a Third of Office Discipline Referrals

Many studies have shown that Black schoolchildren are far more likely than their White peers to be disciplined at school. But a new study published by the American Educational Research Association, finds that 5 percent of teachers most likely to refer students to the principal’s office for disciplinary action do so at such an outsized rate that they effectively double the racial gaps in such referrals.

The study was conducted by Jing Liu and Wenjing Gao of the University of Maryland, College Park and Emily K. Penner at the University of California, Irvine.

Office discipline referrals (ODRs) are typically the first formal step in the discipline process and precede the potential use of further formal consequences, including suspension. Researchers found that the top 5 percent of referring teachers issued an average of over 48 ODRs per year—roughly one ODR every four school days. That is several times greater than the rates of their average-referring colleagues, who issued less than one ODR for every two months of school. This 5 percent of teachers accounted for 34.8 percent of all ODRs. The ratio of the Black-White gap in ODRs was about 1.6-to-1 when considering all referrers but jumped to 3.4-to-1 when including top referrers.

The results suggest that teachers who are White, early career, and who serve middle schools are most likely to engage in extensive referring. As teachers accumulate more years of teaching experience, especially after three years, their likelihood of being a referrer or top referrer quickly drops.

“Given that top referrers tend to be teachers early in their careers, targeting professional development supports of classroom management skills for this group of teachers might also be a viable approach to reducing their referring frequency,” said Jing Liu the lead author of the study. “Our analysis highlights that structural supports at certain school levels are warranted.”

The full study, “Troublemakers? The Role of Frequent Teacher Referrers in Expanding Racial Disciplinary Disproportionalities,” was published on the website of the journal Educational Researcher. It may be accessed here.

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