Examine the role of socio-economic status in disciplinary disparities among students

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Recently, there has been a series of statistic-focused newspaper articles showing that in Iowa schools, black students are more often disciplined than white students. The most common form of discipline is withdrawal from the class due to behavior that disrupts the class. These articles focused on race and ignored the important role of social class (socioeconomic status, SES; typically measured by education and income). Many things that at first glance seem to be race-related turn out on closer examination to be class-related.

Across the state of Iowa, in the 2013-2014 school year, 18% of black students were taken out of class for disruptive behavior, compared with just 4% of white students and 2% of Asian students. If these statistics were presented separately for different social classes, these differences would certainly be much smaller and could even disappear completely. Sociological studies have repeatedly shown that middle class students of all races behave better and are more respectful of authority than students from the lower classes. Yet this kind of more comprehensive analysis has not been presented in recent articles on Discordant Disciplinary Statistics in Schools. Instead, the “institutional racism” hypothesis was invoked. The discipline rate of white students (4%) is twice that of Asian students (2%). Does this mean that there is institutional racism against white students in Iowa schools? Not likely. This probably means that Asian students on average behave better, more obedient to teachers, less defiant, and more respectful of authority than white students on average. This is also the case, at least nationally, that Asian students come on average from households of a somewhat higher social class than the white average. This is probably true in Iowa too.

Closer to home, in our Iowa City Community School District, the percentage of black students out of all students withdrawn from class is the highest in the state: 53% of those who were withdrawn from class are black. while only 18% of all students are black. It’s also true that the average socioeconomic status (SES) of white families in our school district is higher than elsewhere in the state of Iowa and above the national average as a whole. We have all seen the articles about the high level of education and income in our area. The higher social class average means that fewer white students will display disruptive behavior and therefore fewer will be withdrawn from the classroom. The result will be that a large percentage of those withdrawn from the class will be black. A large percentage of black students come from lower SES homes. Again, social class analysis is what is needed to reveal reality.

This same analysis applies to the disproportionate incarceration rates in Iowa for blacks compared to whites. Black Iowans make up 3.3% of Iowa’s population, but 25% of prisoners, for a ratio of 7.5 to 1.00, are said to be the highest in the United States. If these statistics were broken down by social class, this gap would either be much smaller or perhaps disappear, as in the case of school discipline rates. Another factor contributing to this disproportionate ratio is that Iowan’s white crime rate is lower than the national white crime rate, resulting in a lower jail rate, which increases the ratio from 7.5 to 1.00. In order to fully understand the meaning of these social statistics, more analytical data analyzes are needed. However, we do not see such analyzes in the media, including newspapers. Such analyzes seem to be confined to scholarly research journals.

One of the reasons I tend to be aware of the important role of social class is that before my retirement in 2012 I taught the course “Individual and Group Differences in Traits and Abilities”. This is a doctorate. level course, and one of the topics included is social class differences. Social class differences are just as great among blacks as they are among whites. Middle-class blacks and middle-class whites are alike in that both try to avoid lower-class members of their own race (and other races as well). The reason for this is mainly the fact that crime rates of all kinds and other social pathologies are higher among the lower class of each race. A recently published book by a black professor examines the conflict between middle-class and working-class blacks, on the one hand, and lower-class blacks, on the other: The Black Silent Majority, by Michael J Fortner (available from Prairie Lights). Professor Fortner says the lower class, with its high crime rates and social pathologies, creates a stigma that many whites unfairly apply to blacks in the middle and working classes. In addition, blacks in the middle and working class are often victims of lower class crimes. One of the surprising things revealed in this book is that it was middle-class blacks who (successfully) pushed for longer federal prison sentences for crack use than for regular cocaine use, because this are the crack users who destroy their neighborhoods. This divergence in sanctions has often been attributed to white racism.

With regard to discipline in schools, I will not discuss here the practice of school officials calling the police when students are fighting. Principles and other school officials should be able to handle discipline for fighting without calling in law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. It is one of their responsibilities. I saw a lot of fights when I was in school – and I got involved in some of them. But the police were never called.

‘Frank Schmidt is an industrial and organizational psychologist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Management and Organizations at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. Comments: [email protected]

Sally Hoelscher (left) with Suzanne Krogh and Dawn Fitzpatrick, all from Iowa City packed cereal, canned fruit, juice and other food items in backpacks at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on Friday October 28, 2011, in Iowa City, Iowa. Backpacks will be distributed to students at Grant Wood Elementary School. Church volunteers pack food for 36 students to take home each week during the school year. This number rises to 60 during the summer. Hoelscher says there are more needy students but the funding only covers 36 students. (Source Media Group News / Jim Slosiarek)


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