Although inequity can affect all minority groups, we focused our efforts on the impacts of racial inequity to help educators understand the systemic ways implicit racial biases can contribute to the educational opportunity gap for children of color. We hope this research, and the resources we provide, will guide educators into establishing school-wide interventions and practices that aim to improve equity and reduce racial disparities and disproportionality in our schools.

Racial inequity in our schools can affect students of color in many ways, including discipline referrals, academic access, treatment by teachers, and more. The research below has been divided up by topic.


Racial disproportionality in discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions is a problem that many schools in the U.S. continue to face, even in pre-schools. This disproportionality in discipline can lead to loss of critical instruction time, create a feeling of exclusion for students, and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Topic Area Research
Referrals, Suspensions, and Expulsion Rates
  • Black students who are economically disadvantaged as well as special education students are disproportionately suspended and have longer durations of lost school days (Balfanz et al., 2014)
  • A National Investigation study found African American students were 2 times more likely to be referred in elementary school, and almost 4 times more likely to be referred in middle school for problem behavior compared to their White peers. They were also more likely to receive harsher punishments than their White peers for similar problem behaviors (Skiba et al., 2011)
  • 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection estimated that African American students account for 40% of suspensions nation-wide, even though they only make up 16% of the population (Gordon, 2018).
  • Harsher punitive consequences contributed to discipline disproportionately for Black students and students with disabilities which contributed to loss of instruction time (Losen & Whitaker, 2018).
Subjectivity and Implicit Bias in Referrals
  • Almost 500,000 office discipline referrals were analyzed and subjectivity in defined behaviors disproportionately affected children of color (Smolkowski et al., 2016).
  • Around 1,100,000 referrals were analyzed and found the subjectivity in referrals led to the majority of variance in discipline disproportionality for students of color (Girvan et al., 2016).
Zero Tolerance Policies vs. Restorative Justice
  • Gaps in student discipline for Black and White students contributed to perceptions of less school equity, less school belonging, and increased adjustment problems for Black students (Bottiani et al., 2016).
  • Zero tolerance policies for discipline were related to discrimination against Black girls and may contribute to the disproportionality of people of color in the criminal justice system (Aldridge, 2018).
  • Teachers and school leaders using social justice leadership orientation to create space for discourse, empowering communities, and establishing social justice practices may be effective in helping to close the racial discipline gap (DeMatthews, 2016).
  • Restorative justice may be an effective alternative to punitive discipline policies that contribute to racial disparities in school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. (Schiff, 2018).

Academic Achievement/Opportunity Gap

Racial disproportionality in academic achievement, now called the “opportunity gap,” have also been widely researched and documented. Disproportionality in suspensions have been linked to differences in academic achievement for children of color due to loss of instruction time. Other academic policies such as course/academic tracking and stereotypes/implicit bias from educators also disproportionately affects students of color.

Topic Area Research
Discipline Effects on Academics
  • Racial disproportionality in suspensions has been linked to lower academic achievement for students in reading and math due to loss of instruction time. This may account for about 1/5th of Black and White differences in school performance (Morris & Perry, 2016)
  • Racial and ethnic patterns in school sanctions may contribute to lower academic achievement for students of color (Gregory et al., 2010).
Tracking and Other Obstacles
  • The practice of academic tracking can contribute to the overall achievement gap (opportunity gap) and have negative affects on students of color (Tyson, 2013).
  • African American students from a California university reported facing many obstacles in their education and how it has affected their achievement, behavior, and emotional well-being. The main themes of racial stereotypes, low expectations from faculty, stereotype threat, and lack of support emerged as encountered obstacles (Johnson-Ahorlu, 2012).

Teacher Expectations & Support

Related to academic success, differences have also been observed in teacher expectations of children of color and how they provide support. Oftentimes, these disparities are due to implicit biases and microaggressions that result in students feeling a lack of belonging, lack of adult support, and low expectations. Understanding the systemic racism in the education system, building relationships with students, families, and the community, and creating safe spaces to discuss race have been shown to be effective in ensuring culturally responsive teaching methods.

Topic Area Research
Implicit Bias/Microaggressions in Teacher Expectations
  • In a study examining high school students’ perceptions of support, Black students reported feeling less cared for and experiencing less equity compared to White peers (Bottiani et al., 2016)
  • Racial microaggressions and their effects on African American and Hispanic students in urban schools were explored. They found microaggressions at the macro level for district/school as well as teacher level use (Allen et al., 2013)
  • Research has shown to provide a culturally responsive education for all students, it is important for white teachers to build relationships with their students, families and communities (Sleeter, 2016).
Positive Teaching Methods
  • In an ethnically diverse study, researchers sought student perception on culturally relevant teaching. They found constructivist methods were related to student perceived interest in schools, feelings of belonging, connectedness to their schools, and improved intergroup relations with their teachers and peers (Byrd, 2016).
  • Understanding and resisting structural racism in schools has been shown to help teachers inform their own racial equity teaching (Blaisdell, 2016).


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Aldridge, S. (2018). Criminalization and discrimination in schools: The effects of zero tolerance policies on the school-to-prison pipeline for black girls. Aisthesis, (9), 1-7.

Allen, A., Scott, L. M., & Lewis, C. W. (2013). Racial Microaggressions and African American and Hispanic Students in Urban Schools: A Call for Culturally Affirming Education. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 117–129.

Balfanz, R., Byrnes, V., & Fox, J. (2014). Sent home and put off-track: The antecedents, disproportionalities, and consequences of being suspended in the ninth grade. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 5(2), 17-30.

Blaisdell, B. (2016). Schools as racial spaces: Understanding and resisting structural racism. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(2), 248-272.

Bottiani, J., Bradshaw, C., & Mendelson, T. (2016). A multivariate examination of racial disparities in high school discipline: Black and white adolescents’ perceived equity, school belonging, and adjustment problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-14.

Bottiani, J., Bradshaw, C., Mendelson, T. (2016). Inequality in black and white high school students’ perceptions of school support: An examination of race in context. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45, 1176-1191.

Byrd, C. (2016). Does culturally relevant teaching work? An examination from student perspectives. Student Diversity, 1-10.

DeMatthews, D. (2016). Effective leadership is not enough: Critical approaches to closing the racial discipline gap. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues, and Ideas, 89(1), 7-13.

Girvan, E., Cion, C., McIntosh, K., & Smolkowski, K. (2016). The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(3), 392-404.

Gordon, N. (2018). Disproportionality in student discipline: Connecting policy to research. Brookings. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/research/disproportionality-in-student-discipline-connecting-policy-to-research/

Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher, 39, 59-68. doi: 10.3102/0013189×09357621

Johnson-Ahorlu, R. (2012). The academic opportunity gap: How racism and stereotypes disrupt the education of African American undergraduates. Race Ethnicity and Education, 15(5), 633-652.

Losen, D. J., & Whitaker, A. (2018). 11 million days lost, race, discipline, and safety at U.S. public schools. Center for Civil Rights Remedies of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Morris, E. & Perry, B. (2016). The punishment gap: School suspension and racial disparities in achievement. Social Problems, 63, 68-86.

Schiff, M.(2018). Can restorative justice disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline?” Contemporary Justice Review, 21(2), 121-139.

Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C. G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T.  (2011). Race Is Not Neutral: A National Investigation of African American and Latino Disproportionality in School Discipline. School Psychology Review, 40, 85–107.

Sleeter, C. (2016). Wrestling with problematics of whiteness in teacher education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(8), 1065-1068.

Smolkowski, K., Girvan, E. J., McIntosh, K., Nese, R. N. T., & Horner, R. H. (2016). Vulnerable decision points in school discipline: Comparison of discipline for African American compared to White students in elementary schools. Behavioral Disorders, 41, 178-195.

Tyson, K. (2013). Tracking, segregation, and the opportunity gap: What we know and why it matters. Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance. 169-249. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.