Advocates call for schools with high suspension rates to receive technical assistance in adopting “proven-effective” systematic supports. Such supports include teacher professional development. This call is justified given evidence that good teaching matters. But what types of professional development should be funded? Increasingly, research points to the promise of programs that are sustained, rigorous, and focused on teachers’ interactions with students. The current study tests whether a professional development program with these three characteristics helped change teachers’ use of exclusionary discipline practices—especially with their African American students. Exclusionary discipline is when a classroom teacher sends a student to the administrators’ office for perceived misbehavior. Administrators then typically assign a consequence, usually in the form of suspension (in-school or out-of school). The My Teaching Partner-Secondary (MTP-S) aims to improve teachers’ interactions with their students when implementing instruction and managing behavior. MTP-S helps teachers offer clear routines, implement consistent rules, and monitor behavior in a proactive way. The program also supports teachers in developing warm, respectful relationships that recognize students’ needs for autonomy and leadership. Teachers are paired with a coach for an entire school year (sustained approach), they regularly reflect on videorecordings of their classroom instruction and carefully observe how they interact with students, and they apply the validated Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS-S) to improve the quality of their interactions (rigorous approach). In the current study, a randomized controlled trial found that teachers receiving MTP-S relied less on exclusionary discipline compared to the control teachers. Specifically, MTP-S teachers issued fewer exclusionary discipline referrals to their African American students. This is the first study to show that programs like MTP-S that focus on teacher-student interactions in a sustained manner using a rigorous approach can actually reduce the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline with African American students. More broadly, the findings offer policymakers direction in identifying types of professional development programs that have promise for reducing the racial discipline gap.

Key Take Away Points

  • Teacher professional development can eliminate racial disparities in classroom discipline referrals.
  • Promising teacher professional development needs to be systematic and rigorous whereby teachers reflect on their instructional practices.
  • Improving the quality of teacher-student interactions through emotional, organization, and instructional supports may be key for eliminating racial disparities in school discipline.

Author Biography

Anne Gregory, Ph.D. is an associated professor at Rutgers University.

Joseph P. Allen, Ph.D. is the Hugh Kelly Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Amori Yee Mikami, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

Christopher A. Hafen, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist at the University of Virginia.

Robert C. Pianta, Ph.D. is the Dean of the Curry School of Education and the Novartis Professor of Education at the University of Virginia .


Acknowledgements: This study and its write-up were supported by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (R305A100367). The views in this article do not necessarily reflect policies or recommendations of the funding agencies. The authors are grateful for the teachers and students who participated in this study and the many staff who contributed to this project, including Judith Wasserman, Sharon Deal, Marla Capper, and Kathy Neesen.

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Daniel Losen. Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion. New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2015 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.