Special Issue of School Psychology Review Highlights New Approaches to Close the Discipline Gap in US Schools

Audrey Breen

Amid the release earlier this spring of the Government Accountability Report and the Trump administration’s decision to revoke Obama-era guidelines around school discipline, there is national concern around the disproportionate punishment of minority students in schools, which contributes to higher rates of school dropout and court involvement.

School Psychology Review released a special issue this month entitled “Closing in on Discipline Disproportionality,” featuring perspectives from three researchers at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education around how to bridge the discipline gap in US schools. Each of the five studies in the issue offer promising approaches and critical issues related to the ongoing challenge of closing racial and ethnic gaps in schools’ use of exclusionary and punitive discipline practices.

Together, the papers highlight the need to train and equip our educators with training in culturally responsive and behavior management practices. This is at the forefront of a new generation of promising, evidence-based approaches that not only nudge toward bridging the discipline gap between white students and students of color--but can close it altogether.

“For decades, researchers and policymakers have been concerned about the growing gap between white students and students of color when it comes to outcomes like academic performance and discipline problems,” said Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. “While we have a lot still to learn about the complex set of factors that contribute to these gaps, it is imperative that we work in concert to close these gaps. This special issue features some of the first empirical evidence of research-based approaches for addressing this pressing issue.”

Dr. Catherine Bradshaw presents findings regarding the effectiveness of Double Check, an innovative approach to coaching elementary and middle school teachers in cultural responsiveness and student engagement. Ultimately, Double Check seeks to reduce the disproportionality in teachers’ use of exclusionary discipline for African-American students. And the findings from a federally funded randomized controlled trial show the approach yields a high return on investment, as such a program results in significantly lower rates of discipline referrals for black students from teachers receiving the coaching.

While a promising solution to close the gap, additional research is needed to determine the effects of the entire Double Check model, as well as the extent to which these findings apply to other school levels, like high schools, or extend beyond this particular school district.

Additionally, a paper by Dr. Dewey Cornell explores the impact of threat assessment practice on racial disparities in schools’ disciplinary practices in Virginia schools. School psychologists and support staff are frequently called upon to assess students who have made verbal or behavioral threats of violence against others. Cornell’s study found that threat assessment teams, mandated by the Virginia state legislature in 2013 across all public schools, resulted in a lack of disparity among black, Hispanic and white students for out of school suspension rates, transfers, or legal action, offering a potential solution to parity in school discipline.

“Our research shows that schools using a threat assessment approach are not making disciplinary decisions that punish minority students at a disproportionate rate even though racial disparities in school discipline are a concern nationwide and in Virginia, where black students are often suspended at twice the rate of white students,” Cornell said.

Other studies in the special issue highlight the potential promise of classroom behavior management strategies, professional development focused on culturally responsive practices, and restorative justice programs to close the discipline gap.

Previous studies have confirmed the existence of this problem but not made much progress in identifying ways to ameliorate it. This special issue brings attention to several promising strategies. The authors of the papers in this special issue emphasize the need to build the science of discipline disparities through more research focused on effective intervention and prevention strategies. In doing so, these new directions can serve as the foundation for an evidence-based, next-generation approach to fully closing the discipline gap, rather than just nudging it.

About Curry School of Education
The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education located in Charlottesville, Va., is ranked America’s 16th best graduate schools of education. To its 2,300 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, the school offers nationally-ranked degree programs in education and health centered around human development. Through 3 research centers, nearly 20 labs, and dozens of individual projects, faculty and students at Curry conduct rigorous, practical research that supports both the quality of teaching, learning and clinical practices and the decision-making of district, state and national leaders.

About the National Association of School Psychologists
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) represents 25,000 school psychologists throughout the United States and abroad. NASP promotes children’s healthy development and learning through programs and services that prevent academic, social-emotional, and mental and behavioral health problems.  School psychologists work with families, educators, and community partners to create safe and healthy learning environments, promote wellness and positive skills development, provide direct supports to students, improve access to school-based mental health services, and promote equity and social justice for all students. School Psychology Review is NASP’s premier peer-reviewed journal and one of the largest in field of psychology.

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Audrey Breen