Monday, March 22, 2010

Disparate Impact: Meet the Losers

Most of you have probably already read Steve’s take on the NYT story about the lawsuit against the Beaufort, NC school system’s disciplinary policies.

Fun facts:

  • Beaufort County, like NC in general, has an above average black population:  ~30%.
  • Beaufort County is poor:  the median household income is only $36K.
  • Beaufort County is not exceptionally educated:  only 16% of its residents possess Bachelor’s degrees.  (Some 75% have completed high school.)
  • Beaufort County has a consolidated school district, with three high schools.  The suspended students came from Southside High School, which is 44% black and 54% white.  GreatSchools gives it a rating of 5/10.  It’s test scores are at about the state average:  not great, but not cratering either.

It is not clear from the NYT article what specific role disparate impact plays in the litigation.  Nonetheless, Beaufort County provides a profile of the communities that will be on the business end of Obama’s application of disparate impact to education:  working poor and racially mixed.  Families without the means to retreat from the NAMs that surround them or they would have done so already.  Schools that attempt to provide their educable students with the best education possible and protect the rest from racial intimidation.

. . . . . . .

A couple of observations from my own one-semester experience in an “urban” school.

  • The NYT’s “boys will be boys” attitude towards school violence (itself rather ironic, considering the Times’ reaction to school “sexual harassment”) doesn’t take into account how even a low level of disruption makes it impossible for learning to take place.  In isolation, no single incident seems like it should be an expellable offense; cumulatively, however, they can drain the teacher of her teaching time in favor of “keep order” time.
  • There is a huge variance among teachers in their ability to keep order.  Among mine, the best at this was my algebra teacher, a physically imposing black woman whose students uttered nary a peep even when she was out of the room.  And the worst?  Well, the school had three-tier tracking, so it wasn’t The Wire, or even The Class, but this nice white lady flailed away ineffectually while a handful of students made life very difficult for the rest of us.  (Fortunately, she taught a bogus subject, “Career Planning”, to the content of which I was indifferent.)
  • Not all “school violence” is created equal.  I do not wish to romanticize the white working class – being a slight, bookish boy from an NPR-listening family at a rural school was no picnic, I assure you – but the kind of violence that I witnessed at an urban school was just scarier.  Was that scariness a function of the students’ race?  I don’t think so, at least not entirely, but I can’t prove it, and anyway, so what?  The psychological effect is the same whether or not it involves race or not.  Which is why I like living in my lily white little burg.

4 comments:

ironrailsironweights said...

There are three fears that define modern American life:

1. Adults are afraid of teenagers.
2. Whites are afraid of minorities.
3. Everyone is afraid of Muslims.

The excessive punishment meted out in the North Carolina case is primarily the result of Fear #1, with some of Fear #2 thrown into the mix. At least the third kind isn't involved.

Peter

trumwill said...

In isolation, no single incident seems like it should be an expellable offense; cumulatively, however, they can drain the teacher of her teaching time in favor of “keep order” time.

That's just it, though. Zero Tolerance policies make no distinctions. The middle ground that would allow teachers to "keep order" but also not toss kids out of the schooling system was explicitly rejected in this article. Alternative High Schools exist precisely for the purpose of removing distractions from the classrooms that you and I are a part of while keeping the disruption of their education to a minimum.

Instead, however, they went straight beyond that. It was strictly punative, going beyond the point where it's doing good (as removing them from regular classrooms often is) to the counterproductive (what good really comes from denying them study aids so that they can keep up at home)?

I'm with Peter on this. This is first and foremost about fear of young people. Race is a secondary factor as these inane policies exist in communities bereft of significant minority populations, too. But they're idiotic policies even when aimed at minorities. The institutions lining up behind these policies, school administrators (frequently blamed by the right for the state of our education system) and law enforcement personnel (frequently hiding behind rocks with radar guns at city limits), don't really have track records that garner much trust when it comes to the sorts of corner cutting policies that Zero Tolerance is an example of.

Φ said...

Way to reframe!

Okay, so obviously I'm not a fan of "zero tolerance" after watching, say, a kid get suspended under anti-weapon policies for drawing a picture of a firearm, or that future midshipman on his school's skeet shooting team who was suspended for having a shotgun shell in the trunk of his car. But in those cases, we had lots of detail about what happened. In this case, I don't have the same confidence level that we're getting the whole story, either because of agenda-driven reporting (especially from the NYT or because privacy laws prevent the school district from making its case in public.

I don't have any direct knowledge of this, but I wonder the extent to which replacing teacher discretion with "zero tolerance" is itself driven by the need to avoid real or apparent discrimination against minorities.

I will concede this though: I do not understand why the school district found it necessary to deny a gen-pop student the opportunity to attend the alternative school.

The local coverage tells the story without reference to race or the "school-to-jail pipeline" or any of that business.

trumwill said...

But in those cases, we had lots of detail about what happened.

Again, though, Zero Tolerance is impervious to detail. The whos and whys and whats don't matter. Even in cases where a non-ZT regime would boot the kids out of school, you can still disagree with the mechanism (ZT) without disagreeing with the result (expulsion).

I don't have any direct knowledge of this, but I wonder the extent to which replacing teacher discretion with "zero tolerance" is itself driven by the need to avoid real or apparent discrimination against minorities.

I think discrimination is a reason, though racial discrimination is only a small part of it. These policies are particularly popular in conservative, white suburbs where minority enrollment isn't an issue. I think the anti-discrimination angle is often to prevent being unfairly lenient on kids with influential or persuasive parents or kids that are themselves influential or persuasive.

It doesn't really succeed at that, though. What happens instead is that, knowing the stiff punishments, teachers and administrators decide not to report the incident in the first place.