The Discipline Gap: What’s Trust Got to Do With It?


by Lisa S. Romero - 2018

Background/Context: If we are serious about eliminating the racial achievement gap, we need to address the discipline gap as well. The scholarly literature generally paints a positive picture of the potential of trust to transform schools. Research on student trust has shown that students who trust their teachers and schools are suspended and expelled less frequently and have more positive academic outcomes. However, we know little about if or how the impact of trust may vary by race or gender.

Research Question: Do the benefits of trusting relationships accrue equally to all students? Do trusting student–teacher relationships pay off in less discipline and improved academic outcomes for all students, or do the benefits of trust depend on the race and gender of the student?

Research Design: Structural equation modeling was used to model the relationships between student trust, behavior, and high school outcomes, controlling for socioeconomic status, school size, and prior achievement. Data, drawn from the Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002, includes responses from more than 6,000 public high school students (n = 6,352) who identify as African American or White. Comparisons are made between results for White, African American, and African American male students.

Findings/Results: Student trust is associated with fewer disciplinary incidents and better academic outcomes; however, the benefits of trust do not accrue equally to all students. Black students, particularly males, benefit less from trust. Controlling for trust, behavior, and standardized measures of math and reading ability, Black students are penalized multiple times for a single disciplinary incident: by the suspension (or other consequence), by missed instruction, and by the impact on their grades (and possibly their future course placement and postsecondary plans). In other words, there are unequal consequences of equal discipline.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This research found that Black and White students with roughly equivalent discipline records, scores on achievement tests, and levels of trust still have substantially different high school outcomes. Although efforts to implement restorative justice or positive behavior support programs are a step in the right direction, results suggest that they will not be enough. Schools must deal with implicit bias and the unequal consequences of equal discipline. To do this, we must scrutinize course placement practices, grading, and the messages that we send to students. Failure to do so will continue to leave us with a vast education debt and will continue to fuel the achievement gap.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 11, 2018, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22459, Date Accessed: 2/25/2021 6:08:36 AM

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