Examining the Relationship Between School Discipline and Dropout for Black Students.

By Jennifer R. Jones, M.A. and Anne Gregory, Ph.D.

Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Across the Unites States about 7,200 students (1.3 million a year) drop out of school each school day (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010). Fifty years ago, a statistic this staggering may have gone unnoticed; however the United States has entered an era where a living wage can no longer be earned without a high school diploma. The high school diploma is the minimum requirement for success in the workplace and there is growing recognition that too few students obtain this minimum standard (Neild & Balfanz, 2006). Students who dropout from high school are at a higher risk of unemployment, have lower earning potential, and are more likely to be incarcerated than individuals who graduate from high school (Ikomi, 2010). Many influences contribute to a student dropping out (e.g., individual and school structural characteristics). However, the relationship between exclusionary discipline practices (particularly with Black students) and dropout is seldom studied. This article synthesizes the current state of knowledge on how exclusionary discipline, specifically targeting Black students, is linked with school dropout. A better understanding of the consequences of discipline can point to new directions for reducing dropout and enhancing the well-being of Black students.

Prevalence and Impact of Dropout

The overall prevalence of dropout has decreased over the years; however dropout continues to remain a significant issue in this country. According to the National Center for Education, approximately 3.3 million of 16- through 24-year-olds have not earned a high school diploma or its equivalent (Cataldi, Laird, & KewalRamani, 2009). The federal report, “Left Behind in America: The Nation’s Drop Out Crisis” documents that Whites drop out of high school at a 12.2% rate, whereas Blacks drop out of school at a 21% rate (Kantrowitz, 2009). Additionally, Black male students have little more than a 47% chance of graduating high school (Schott Foundation, 2010).  This staggering dropout rate in the United States has serious individual and societal effects, predominantly for Black students.

The individual and societal effects of high school dropout can be devastating.  Dropouts suffer from reduced earnings and lost opportunities; there are also significant social and economic costs to the rest of the nation.  Studies that examine the effects of dropping out of high school (e.g., Barton, 2005; Center on Education Policy and American Youth Policy Forum, 2001) show that students who fail to obtain a high school diploma earn considerably less income over their lifetime and have fewer opportunities in today’s workforce (Campbell, 2004). A high school dropout earns, on average, about $260,000 less than a high school graduate over the course of his or her lifetime, (Rouse, 2005). Those who drop out of school early are less likely than later dropouts to receive a GED (Murnane, Willet, & Tyler, 2000).  Thus, the social costs for early dropouts are higher than for later dropouts.  Due to lower lifetime earnings, dropouts will contribute far less in federal, state, and local taxes than they will receive in government benefits and correctional costs (Center for Labor Market Studies, 2003; Wald & Martinez, 2003).  Over their life span, this will impose a net financial burden on the rest of society (Barton, 2005; US Department of Labor, 2007).

Persons with little education and low skill levels are more likely to live in poverty and to receive government assistance (Boisjoly, Harris, & Duncan, 1998; Laird, Kienzl, DeBell, & Chapman, 2007; NCES, 2007).  High school dropouts are likely to stay on public assistance longer than those with at least a high school degree (Moore, Glei, Driscoll, Zaslow, & Redd, 2002). Dropouts from the Class of 2010 alone will cost the nation more than $337 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes (Alliance for Excellence in Education, 2008).

In addition to financial effects, there are also alarming statistics concerning the incarceration rates of high school dropouts. Three-quarters of state prison inmates are dropouts, as are 59% of federal inmates (Harlow, 2003). Tragically, African American men are disproportionately incarcerated. Of all African American male dropouts in their early 30s, 52% have been imprisoned (Western, Schiraldi, & Zienberg, 2004). According to Pettit and Western (2004) increasing the high school completion rate by 1% for all men ages 20-60 would save the United States $1.4 billion annually in reduced costs associated with crime.

Discipline and Dropout

A variety of strategies have been employed to exclude disruptive students from the regular education setting.  One of the most common strategies is to suspend a student from school (Christle, Nelson, & Jolivette, 2004).  The Office of Civil Rights examined 97% of the nations school districts, and 99% of its schools, and found a total of 3,053,449 student suspensions and 97,177 expulsions in the year 2000 (US Department of Education, 2000).  Yet, both school discipline and dropout rates are not equally distributed amongst ethnic and racial groups.  Losen and Skiba (2010) examined more than 9,000 middle schools (nationally) and found that close to 30% of Black males and only 10% of White males were suspended at least once during a school year. Furthermore, Black females were suspended more than four times as often as White females (18% vs. 4%). Suspension and drop-out were interrelated.  Using data from a national longitudinal study, Carpenter and Ramirez (2007) found that even when considering a range of individual, family and school factors, the number of suspensions a student received was directly linked to the likelihood a student would drop out.

Exclusion from school for disciplinary reasons may increase students’ sense of disconnection and alienation from school which may culminate in their giving up on high school graduation altogether.  From an equity perspective, this is even more concerning for Black students. Increasing evidence has shown that Black students may be unfairly selected and harshly sanctioned with exclusionary discipline (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). One study showed that middle school Black students were more frequently issued discipline referrals because of subjective rule infractions, compared to White students’ reasons for referral (Skiba, Michael, & Nardo, 2000). A recent study of 34 elementary schools showed that Black students were significantly more likely to be referred to the office than other racial groups, even when taking into account teacher reports of student misbehavior and other school-level factors (Rocque, 2010).  Unfair teacher and administrator practices may accelerate Black students’ early departure from formal schooling. This needs to be further examined in research.

Alternatives to Exclusionary Discipline

Recognizing the link between discipline and dropout is particularly important for Black students.  Black students remain at the lower end of the achievement gap and are therefore already at greater risk for negative school outcomes (NCES, 2010).  As research continues to understand why exclusionary discipline may contribute to dropout, it is important that alternatives to exclusionary discipline be explored.

School administrators might consider systematic ways to address negative behavior that does not include missed instruction time—such as restitution. Restitution allows the student to help improve the school environment either by directly addressing the problems caused by the student’s behavior (e.g., in cases of vandalism students can fix the damaged items), or by encouraging the student to improve the school environment more broadly (e.g., picking up trash around the school, washing vandalized lockers; Real Restitution, 2010).

Another alternative to harsh discipline practices is involving the parents in order to increase positive behavior in the student (Childress, Elmore, & Grossman., 2006). For example, parents should be invited to brainstorm ways they can provide closer supervision/monitoring of their child’s progress in school. Better communication and more frequent contacts between parents and teachers could be used as prevention to reduce the likelihood of serious rule infractions. Teachers and administrators could set consistent criteria for office discipline referrals (and monitor enforcement) across classrooms to reduce referrals for minor disruption. In addition, systemic support and training for teachers on fostering effective classroom management and engaging instruction could increase student cooperation and reduce the use of exclusionary discipline (Pianta & Allen, 2008).

In addition to restitution and parental involvement, creating a structured, coordinated behavior support plan specific to the student’s target behavior may decrease the undesirable behavior (Peterson & Smith, 2007).  The behavior support plan should focus on increasing desirable behavior and not just replacing behaviors deemed inappropriate by a teacher. Lastly, in-school suspension should be provided and include academic tutoring, instruction on skill-building related to the student behavior problem (e.g., social skills), and a clearly defined procedure for returning to class (contingent on student progress or behavior). The environment should be carefully managed to guard against using in-school suspension as a unproductive “holding area.” These and other alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices deserve greater examination.


The trend in racial and gender differences in exclusionary school discipline practices are alarming considering evidence that suspension and expulsion are linked to dropout (Stearns & Glennie, 2006). Frequent use of early exclusionary discipline practices may not only have an impact on later discipline experiences, but also have an impact on dropout. Given the effects of dropout, understanding the extent to which exclusionary discipline practices are associated with this phenomenon remains an important issue. School administrators can possibly make systematic changes within the school system that could address this problem (e.g., decreasing office referrals and suspensions). Lastly, the negative outcomes of frequent exclusionary discipline practices may not be the same for all students. It is becoming more and more evident that Black students are more harshly disciplined by school systems which results in harmful ramifications for our next generation of young people who need to be placed “at-promise,” not “at-risk.” Alternatives to exclusionary discipline were explored.


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--------------------------------------- Footnote: Status dropout rate is defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2010) as the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (e.g., General Education Development (GED) certificate).

Originally Posted in Psych Discourse

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