Undeniable flaws in study

Posted on March 9, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

There has been wide-ranging commentary on the just-released U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights study regarding racial disparity in school discipline. Secretary Arne Duncan characterized it as a wake-up call containing “undeniable truths.”

Don’t believe him.

Not only are the “truths” in this study deniable, they wind up not even being true.

I’m weary of highly funded and touted studies that pronounce much but actually prove little. Imagine a sports network reporting a study calling for civil-rights reform because black players in the NBA get called for fouls more often than white players. Expand that idea to cover all college basketball teams. For teams that are mostly black, black players would get called for more fouls. For teams that are mostly white, white players would get called for more fouls.

And for those few teams that have about equal white and black players, it would probably vary from team to team, possibly depending on which conference referees were in (some refs “let ’em play” more than others) and what the coaching style and strategy was (some players get fouled more because they can’t make free throws).

The point is, such a study would never be taken seriously, and with good reason. It assumes too much, and ignores too much.

This school study is just as specious in many ways, which suggests it is primarily a function of raison d’etre politics, designed to stir a policy pot rather than scholarly analyze a situation. To muddy murky water even further, the key findings of the discipline portion of the study (it also covered access to advanced classes and teacherpay comparisons) were presented en masse, tabulated from totals of a combined 72,000 schools.

Since the schools vary tremendously in racial makeup, a straight numerical compilation may well produce some provocative percentages, but it paints a flawed situational picture that is not representative of discipline at individual schools.

Let’s examine a bit of the data to demonstrate the potential magnitude of mistakes from drawing sweeping conclusions across the entire spectrum of schools.

Suppose we look at the data from Paragould High School and Pine Bluff High School, which are roughly mirror images of each other’s racial composition. Paragould’s 735-student enrollment is 94 percent white and 2 percent black; Pine Bluff’s 1,000-student enrollment is 97.5 percent black and 2 percent white. Not surprisingly, all the expulsions for Paragould were white, and all for Pine Bluff were black. There were no blacks given in-school suspensions at Paragould, and no whites given in-school suspensions at Pine Bluff.

Only in out-of-school suspensions was there any racial variance at all, and it was very slight, when at Paragould 93 percent were given to white students (compared with a 94 percent white student population).

So in two of the three discipline categories, blacks at Paragould were slightly underrepresented, and in one category slightly overrepresented. In Pine Bluff, whites were slightly underrepresented in all three categories.

Because of the racial homogeneity in each school, and the fact that those racial majorities prevailed in precise proportion to disciplinary actions, it would be ridiculous to assert that racial bias played any role in those actions at either Paragould or Pine Bluff.

However, if we combine the two schools’ numbers, a very different picture emerges. Taken together, the schools’ total combined enrollment becomes 1,735, with blacks comprising about 990 students, or 57 percent.

We’ve already seen that, individually, each school disciplined students in direct line with their racial makeup. But because the rate of disciplinary action at Pine Bluff was higher than at Paragould, when combined it appears that blacks were disciplined disproportionately more than whites.

Take expulsions, for example. There were 20 students expelled at Pine Bluff, but only five expulsions at Paragould. The rate variation—four times higher at Pine Bluff—creates a false conclusion when the numbers are combined and compared with the collective enrollment. It looks like black students were four times more likely to be expelled than whites, even though they only represent 57 percent of the total combined enrollment.

That is an accurate mathematical statement, but a completely false representation of reality. It introduces racial motivation where none existed at all.

For out-of-school suspensions, the misrepresentation is even greater. Pine Bluff gave 645 black students out-of-school suspensions, but Paragould gave it to only 70 students, 65 of whom were white. Throw the numbers together, however, and suddenly a “racial disparity” appears. Numerically, it looks as though 650 blacks got out-of-school suspensions, while only 65 whites did—out of a combined student population that is 42 percent white.

There’s a wake-up call to be gleaned from this study all right, but it’s not the one Duncan mentioned. The question experts should be researching is why the rate of out-of-school suspensions at Pine Bluff is six times that at Paragould. Or why Pine Bluff had four times as many expulsions.

There must be some good reasons, but clearly none of them have anything to do with racially disproportionate discipline in those schools.

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