School & District Management

Study Finds More Evidence of Racial Bias in Teachers’ Expectations for Students

By Elisha McNeil — March 31, 2016 3 min read
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White teachers are less likely to expect academic success from black students, especially black boys, according to a new Johns Hopkins University study.

Published in the journal Economics of Education Review, the “Who Believes in Me?” study was compiled to investigate how teachers form expectations for students, whether those expectations are systematically biased, and whether they are affected by racial differences.

The findings are based largely on data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, an ongoing study following 8,400 10th grade public school students. For the survey, two different math or reading teachers, who each taught the same student, were asked to guess how far that one student would go in school.

The findings show that with white students, evaluations from both teachers were about the same. But for black students, white teachers had lower expectations than black teachers.

“What I would like to do is make teachers aware of biases,” said co-author Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant economics professor at JHU’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, according to the Huffington Post. “Racism is alive and well. I’m sure when people look at a black young man they have certain views, and they might not realize they have these views, and that’s really dangerous.”

Researchers found that, compared to black teachers, white teachers were about 30 percent less likely to predict the same student will attain a four-year college degree and 40 percent less likely to expect their black students will even graduate high school. By contrast, black female teachers were 20 percent less likely than white teachers to predict their student wouldn’t graduate high school, and 30 percent less likely to to make that prediction than black male teachers.

White teachers low expectations for black students could affect the performance of students, especially disadvantaged ones who lack access to role models who could counteract a teacher’s low expectations, Papageorge said in a Johns Hopkins release. For example, for black students, data showed that having a non-black teacher in a 10th grade subject made them less likely to enroll in similar classes.

“If I’m a teacher and decide that a student isn’t any good, I may be communicating that to the student,” Papageorge said. “A teacher telling a student they’re not smart will weigh heavily on how that student feels about their future and perhaps the effort they put into doing well in school.”

The study also found that white and other non-black teachers were 5 percent more likely to predict that their black male students would not graduate high school compared to their black female students, whom white male teachers were 10 to 20 percent more likely to have low expectations for.

The research adds to a growing number of studies indicating that race can shape how teachers see and treat their students. For example, a 2010 Georgia Southern University study found that 342 students reported they had experienced a type of microagression, such as a teacher assuming a black student was poor without asking, at least once during high school. A 2015 American University study found the likelihood of boys of color being suspended or missing class in elementary school rises significantly if assigned to a teacher of another race. According to a Stanford University study in 2015, students of color are disciplined and taken out of class at higher rates than their white peers.

“While the evidence of systematic racial bias in teachers’ expectations uncovered in the current study are certainly troubling and provocative, they also raise a host of related, policy-relevant questions that our research team plans to address in the near future,” said Seth Gershenson, a co-author of the Johns Hopkins study and an assistant professor of public policy at American University.

Gershenson says the research team is currently studying the long-term impact of these biased teacher expectations on students beyond the education system—including educational attainment, labor market success, and interaction with the criminal justice system.

Chart Source: Johns Hopkins University

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.