Friday, March 23, 2012

School Discipline, Race, and Social Psychology

Are your districts talking about the recent Department of Education report about different rates of "punishment" among student racial groups? The data are pretty stunning (and depressing): Across the 70,000 high schools studies, about 18% of the students were black, but about 30-45% of students who were suspended one or more times (or eventually expelled) were black. The report goes into much more detail about the statistical analysis, but it looks thorough and well done.

Although it might be a sensitive discussion topic, our psychology students could think about these (depressing) findings and others like them through a social psychology lens: They could talk about how the social psychology concepts they know (e.g. in/outgroup bias, stereotyping, prejudice, confirmation bias, representativeness heuristic, etc.) might contribute to this "over-identification" of black students for suspensions and expulsions. This conversation might extend into other stereotypes about people their age: I bet most of them have been followed through a store by a clerk just because of their age or appearance.

There may also be other psychological "angles" to explore as well:
  • Learning: In certain classes, I felt comfortable asking students to try to explain acts of racism through classical and/or operant conditioning principles (write up of this activity: Conditioning and Racism)
  • Developmental/Historical: The "doll" experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark are significant in both the history of psychology and U.S. History.

Unfortunately, it's not hard to find current event examples of racial bias. We have to handle these discussions with sensitivity, but our classrooms can become one of the places young people "unpack" reactions/feelings/prejudices related to race, and maybe these discussions could be a small start to a change.

image source:, creative commons attribution share-alike license

posted by Rob McEntarffer

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