Discipline, Teachers, Curriculum, Preschool: Equity a Big Challenge in U.S. Schools

Last Updated: March 24, 2014

This article appeared in the March 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released data and reports this month on disparities in the nation’s schools as they relate to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and English speaking skills. Data, collected from every public school and school district in the U.S. during the 2011–12 school year, found widespread differences in access to qualified and experienced teachers, a full high school curriculum for college and career readiness, and pre-school. The disparities were especially pronounced among groups of students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The report also documents large disparities in discipline rates between students of color and white students and between students with disabilities and those with no identified disabilities.

The OCR has been collecting data since 1968 in order to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws as they relate to educational opportunity. Under the Obama administration, the Office began collecting data related to school discipline. This year’s report includes data on pre-schools as well as public charter schools and juvenile detention centers.


The data found major disparities in disciplinary rates, with students of color and students with disabilities receiving disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion. Within groups of students of color, African-American students are much more likely than any other group to be suspended or expelled.

Disciplinary differences by race/ethnicity

  • African-American students are expelled at three times the rate of white students, with 5% of white students suspended and 16% of African-American students suspended at least once.
  • American Indian and Native Alaskan students, representing 1% of students, represented 2% of out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions.
  • African-American girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity and at higher rates than most boys, even though boys, overall, make up two-thirds of all suspensions. American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls are also suspended at higher rates than white boys.
  • African-American students are more likely to be arrested or referred to law enforcement than other students. Black students represent 16% of all students but 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students arrested at school. White students are 51% of enrollment and 41% of students referred to law enforcement and 39% of those arrested at school.

Disciplinary differences by disability status

  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended (13%) than students without disabilities (6%).
  • Students with disabilities are 12% of the student population and 58% of students placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75% of those physically restrained at school. African-American students represent 19% of students with disabilities and 35% of students restrained with a mechanical device or equitment at school.
  • Students with disabilities represent a quarter of all students arrested and referred to law enforcement at school.

Preschool discipline

The report found that many schools suspend students as young as three or four years old. Moreover, schools’ disciplinary disparities begin among the youngest students. African-American children make up 18% of preschool enrollment and 48% of students suspended from preschool more than once. White students make up 43% of preschool enrollment and 26% of preschoolers suspended multiple times.

Behavior Infractions

The OCR report does not address disciplinary infractions or connect punishments to specific infractions. However, prior research, including research from the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the Equity Project at Indiana University, the Advancement Project, and the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Action Collaborative among others, has found that there are no racially significant differences in behavior among students. However, research has consistently confirmed that African-American students, as well as Latino and American Indian students to a lesser extent, receive harsher punishments than white students for the same infraction; are more likely to be punished for first-time infractions; and are more likely to be punished harshly for non-observable or subjective infractions like disrespect, noise, and “disturbing schools.” Research has shown few racial differences in violent or criminal infractions like those related to drugs, alcohol, and weapons.

Measures to improve school climate, promote fairness in all aspects of school life, improve academic instruction and outcomes, practice positive disciplinary interventions, and emphasize restorative justice over punishment have been found to improve behavior, reduce disciplinary referrals, and improve disciplinary fairness. However, many schools have not put these approaches into practice.

The Discipline Disparities Research-to-Action Collaborative notes that out-of-school suspensions have risen steadily since the early 1970s and attribute some of that rise to policy changes that are not directly discipline-related. For example, punitive accountability measures may create subtle incentives to push out students who are struggling or are perceived as troublemakers. Further, high rates of inexperienced, transient, or substitute teachers—concentrated most heavily in schools with high rates of poverty and students of color—make it much harder to establish the staff continuity necessary to create positive, personalized school environments that support academic achievement and engagement. Such disparities were also documented in the OCR report.

Teacher Equity

The OCR report found disparities in the access of different groups of students to experienced teachers and school counselors. Here again, students of color, especially African-American students, Latino students, and Native-Alaskan students had less access to experienced and certified teachers than other students. For example:

  • Between 3% and 4% of African-American, Latino, American Indian, and Native-Alaskan students attend schools with high concentrations of first-year teachers, compared to 1% of White students.
  • Nearly 7% of African-American students—half a million students—attend schools where at least 20% of teachers lack certification or licensure. African-American are four times more likely than white students to attend these schools. Latino students are twice as likely as white students to attend schools where significant numbers of teachers lack certification. 
  • Among districts that have at least two high schools, nearly 25% report an average gap of at least $5,000 between the salaries of teachers at the school with the highest and lowest African-American and Latino enrollments.

Curriculum: College and career readiness

Access to a full range of college prep classes is a problem across the U.S. The OCR report found that only 63% of high schools offer physics and just 50% offer calculus. Between 10% and 25% do not offer at least one core math or science course. Students of color are more likely that white students to attend high schools that lack one or more core course in math or science. In addition, students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be held back (made to repeat a grade) in high school than are other students. 

  • Among high schools with the highest concentrations of African-American and Latino students, 25% do not offer Algebra II; one-third do not offer chemistry.
  • Less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to a full range of math and science courses.
  • Students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities are more likely to be retained in grade. At the high school level, students with disabilities (12% of student population) are 19% of those who are held back. Twelve percent of African American students are retained, compared to 6% of all students.

Preschool access

Preschool programs are a growing part of the K–12 education landscape, but even so, only about 60% of school districts offer programs for children younger than five. Among districts that do offer preschool programs there are a range of restrictions and inequities.

  • Only 43% of districts offer full-day pre-school programs.
  • About half of districts that offer pre-school programs make those programs available to all students.
  • Students of color and boys are over-represented among students who are retained in kindergarten. Native-Hawaiian, American Indian, Native-Alaskan, and other Pacific Islander kindergarten students are held back at nearly twice the rate of white kindergartners. Boys make up nearly two-thirds of students retained in kindergarten.

Read more:

Office of Civil Rights

Complete OCR data set:

Other research on racial, disability, and other disparities in schools.


Read more from the March 2014 Rural Policy Matters.