Anne Gregory remembers the child’s fondness for the Dewey decimal system. He would write down a combination of numbers and letters on a scrap of paper and hunt down the desired book in the library. Details were his thing. He once wrote several pages outlining the sequence of moves needed to beat a video game, she says.
But at the elementary school where Gregory worked as a counselor, educators saw a different child. A troublemaker. One teacher told Gregory that the boy frequently wandered about mid-lesson. So the teacher moved his desk to the far corner of the room, and sometimes sent him to the principal’s office.
Outside the principal’s door, the boy joined a queue of almost all Black boys. But Black and Latino students together made up just over half of the school’s student population. Gregory brought up her concerns with the principal. Why was that little boy always in trouble? Why did that line of supposed troublemakers skew Black and male?
This was the mid-1990s, a time when educators and researchers knew Black students, on average, scored lower on standardized tests than white students. This “achievement gap” was, by then, a cause for concern. But how educators treated Black children was rarely part of the discussions. The principal told Gregory that her concerns, while potentially valid, were “too hot” to tackle.
“I could just see how much the school structure itself was squelching this African-American boy’s potential and all his strengths,” Gregory says. “That, accompanied with the silence around this at his school, demonstrated to me the absolute urgency, the need, to point this out.”
Gregory, now a psychologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., has devoted her career to pointing out the problem. In the January 2010 Educational Researcher, she and colleagues used the term “discipline gap” to characterize what she’d observed: Black students, particularly boys, were punished more frequently and severely than their white peers — despite a lack of evidence that the Black kids were committing more offenses. Those punishments ranged from teachers sending students to the principal’s office to expulsion. Black students’ disproportionate removal from school may well underlie the achievement gap, Gregory and others contend.
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