Dealing with Discipline Disparities

A district with a long history of inequity created a program to raise achievement among African American boys.

Was it working?


The challenge:

Guilford County Schools faced a common problem: African American males were far more likely than other students to be held back and suspended from school.


The intervention:

A district initiative to boost African American male student achievement focused on improving early literacy reading skills and reducing high-school discipline referrals, but its impact was unclear. SDP Fellow Akisha Jones analyzed available data and collected case-study evidence from disparate sources to evaluate and improve its effectiveness.


The impact:

The district expanded its data collection, student support programs and teacher accountability tactics based on Jones’ analysis. Guilford County now groups students into houses during critical years of transition, collects additional data on teacher referral practices, regularly reviews discipline data disaggregated by race and referring teachers, and provides training in restorative justice techniques.

The Challenge:

Ensuring African American Male Students Succeed

The black male achievement gap is a stubborn challenge nationwide. African-American male students are twice as likely as white males to be held back in elementary school, three times as likely to be suspended, and half as likely to graduate from college.

Guilford County Schools took steps to examine and address this gap in 2012, through its African American Male Initiative (AAMI). Based on local performance trends and research pointing to trouble spots, leaders opted to focus their efforts on improving students’ early literacy in elementary school and reducing disproportionate discipline referrals and suspensions in high school.

A sample of elementary and high schools where leaders were invested in the AAMI goals piloted the program; however, insufficient data-gathering and differences in individual school discipline policies prevented leaders from knowing whether the initiative was achieving its goals.

The Intervention:

Finding Evidence for Effectiveness

The district’s SDP fellow, Akisha Jones, was tasked with examining the impact of AAMI on student disciplinary outcomes.  However, the district did not have student disciplinary data for the second year of the pilot program, 2013-14, making a straightforward quantitative analysis impossible.

Jones created an alternative study based on evidence gathered from student and teacher surveys and interviews. She examined the program’s implementation, impact on discipline and disproportionality, and its perceived effectiveness over time. The SDP fellow then created individual case studies for each school.

Jones used earlier, intact district data to identify comparison schools nearby where the initiative had not been adopted in order to assess its impact. She matched schools based on the strength of their similarities to one another, by size, students’ socio-economic profiles, overall academic performance, and discipline rates for African American males.

The case studies and comparisons showed that the AAMI had an impact on student discipline overall, but not disproportionality. Jones found that discipline referrals declined for all students, although African American males were still referred and suspended at higher rates than their peers. More so, discretionary referrals among African American males—those for more subjective infractions, unlike mandatory referrals—had declined. Overall, the biggest improvements were at schools where leadership was stable and publicly invested in the program, and where resources had been put in place to carry out its goals.

The studies revealed clear opportunities to improve AAMI, which the district put in place following Jones’ suggestions: gather discipline data disaggregated by student race, which the district was doing, and require discipline reports to identify referring teachers to enhance accountability. The evidence Jones collected also informed other changes, such as grouping students into “house” groups during the transition years of 6th and 9th grade and expanding training in restorative justice techniques for teachers. Finally, Jones’ work highlighted the need for more collaboration between the district’s research office and program developers, where research staff are now involved in program development and interventions early on.

The Impact:

Lessons Learned

Jones’ efforts illustrate how non-quantitative sources of information can provide important evidence and point the way toward better data reporting in the future. By using standard questions to gather qualitative data and rigorously applying statistical techniques, Jones created a local research base that yielded critical insights. Together with the commitment of district leaders to the AAMI goals, her analysis and recommendations helped make the initiative stronger.


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