Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now

How a Handful of K-12 Teachers Doubled Racial Gap in Disciplinary Referrals

UMD-Led Study Found Early-Career Educators More Likely to Send Students to Office

By Maryland Today Staff

students in class look a teacher

Just 5% of teachers in a California school district were generating nearly 35% of all disciplinary referrals, and sending Black and Hispanic students at a much higher rate than the rest of teachers, a new UMD study found.

Photo by iStock

A small percentage of teachers is sending an outsized number of students to the principal's office—often for subjective offenses—exacerbating racial disparities in education, according to new research led by the University of Maryland.

The study, published yesterday in Educational Researcher, found that 5% of teachers in a California school district were generating nearly 35% of all disciplinary referrals, the equivalent of one every four days. Other teachers issued fewer than one every two months on average.

Education policy Assistant Professor of Jing Liu and doctoral student Wenjing Gao of UMD and Emily K. Penner at the University of California, Irvine showed that "top referrers" effectively doubled the gap between white students and their peers who are Black, Asian, Hispanic and multiracial. The ratio of the Black-white gap was about 1.6-to-1 when excluding the top 5% of referrers. When these top referrers were included, the ratio jumped to 3.4-to-1.

“Schools leaders need to know that they can leverage information about referring frequency to identify the top referrers and the specific school contexts where extensive referring is concentrated,” Liu said.

Prior research has shown that receiving referrals, especially frequent referrals, is a strong precursor for receiving suspensions, which can hurt student engagement, achievement and long-term success. It also indicates that implicit or explicit racial bias contributes to racial disparities in suspensions.

In May, the Biden administration issued a letter to school leaders indicating that schools that unfairly discipline students based on race could be in violation of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act.

In this first-of-its-kind study, the authors drew on data from the 2016-20 school years involving more than 2,900 teachers and 79,000 students in grades K–12 in 101 schools in a large, diverse urban district in California.

The jump in racial gaps caused by top referrers is largely driven by referrals issued for more subjective reasons such as interpersonal offenses and defiance—as opposed to more objective ones such as violence, drug use and class skipping.

The results from Liu and his colleagues suggested that teachers who are white, early-career and who serve middle schools are most likely to engage in extensive referring. As teachers accumulate more years of teaching experience, especially after three years, their likelihood of being a referrer or top referrer quickly drops.

“Given that top referrers tend to be teachers early in their careers, targeting professional development supports of classroom management skills for this group of teachers might also be a viable approach to reducing their referring frequency,” said Liu.

This article was adapted from a news release by the American Educational Research Association.



Schools & Departments:

College of Education

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.