- A study of one large and diverse California school district found about 1.7% of teachers were responsible for 34.8% of all disciplinary office referrals, according to a paper published in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
- The research found that 5% of teachers who issued the highest rates of office referrals made an average of about 48 office discipline referrals per year, or around one every four school days. That was several times higher than the rates of colleagues who issued an average of less than one referral every two months of the school year.
- The extensive use of referrals by a small percentage of teachers doubled discipline gaps between Black and White students and Hispanic and White students. Providing targeted supports and interventions to teachers who issue high rates of referrals might help reduce racial discipline gaps, the study's authors said.
The research came from data gathered from the 2016-17 to 2019-20 school years involving more than 2,900 teachers and 79,000 students in grades K-12 at 101 schools in the unnamed urban and diverse school district.
Researchers found that the racial discipline gaps were mainly driven by higher numbers of office referrals issued for Black and Hispanic students due to more subjective reasons like interpersonal offenses and defiance.
In the district studied, Black students made up 7% of total enrolled students and 12% of students in top referrers’ classrooms. However, they represented nearly 22% of all referred students and 27% of students given office referrals by teachers issuing the highest rates of referrals.
“We were really surprised to find this small group of teachers engaged in extensive referring and how big an impact they had on expanding racial disparities,” said Jing Liu, an assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, in a statement.
“The positive takeaway was that the group of top referrers in our study represented a relatively manageable number of educators, who could be targeted with interventions and other supports,” Liu said. Liu co-authored the study with Emily Penner at the University of California, Irvine, and Wenjing Gao at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The study found several factors that may explain some teachers' frequent referral behavior. For example, teachers of color were much less likely than their White colleagues to either refer students for discipline or be a referrer. When examining all school levels, a Black teacher's likelihood of making office discipline referrals was 4.8 percentage points lower than a White teacher’s.
Overall, teachers with more than three years of experience were also less likely to make office referrals or to be a top referrer. But at the middle school level, more teaching experience did not reduce a teacher’s likelihood of being a referrer until they had at least 11 years of experience.
Middle school teachers had the highest rate of office discipline referrals. The majority of middle school teachers (70%) made at least one referral, compared to fewer than half of elementary and high school teachers.
Additionally, the study found Black teachers were less likely than their White colleagues to issue office discipline referrals for interpersonal, defiance and violence — but not for drugs, class skipping or other reasons. Hispanic teachers were less likely to issue referrals for violence but not for other reasons. In contrast, Asian teachers were unlikely to use office discipline referrals for any reason.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice issued a joint letter reiterating their commitment to "vigorous enforcement" of racial disparities in discipline practices. The letter included resources for supporting students' social, emotional, behavioral and academic well-being, and for creating safe, inclusive and fair school climates.