Equity & Diversity

When Majority-Black Classroom Has a White Teacher, Punishment May Be More Common

By Sarah Schwartz — January 29, 2019 4 min read
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White teachers in majority-black classrooms have more negative, highly charged interactions with students regarding classroom behavior than do white teachers in predominantly white classrooms and black teachers in majority-black classrooms, according to a new study.

These negative interactions are associated with lower academic performance for black students, the study found.

Researchers from Rutgers University, Vanderbilt University, and California Polytechnic State University compared student-teacher interactions across three different types of classroom settings: two where the race of the teachers and the students matched (a white teacher with mostly white students, or a black teacher with mostly black students), and one with a white teacher and mostly black students. All 25 middle school math classrooms included in the study were in the same metropolitan area.

The researchers analyzed four videos of each educator teaching different lessons, paying attention to the ways that teachers spoke to students and the kinds of classroom environments that they created.

When addressing behavior in the classroom, all of the teachers—regardless of race—were more often reprimanding students than praising them. But white teachers of black students chastised or punished students for their behavior more often than other teachers—between two and four times as frequently as black teachers with mostly black students and white teachers in predominantly white classrooms.

And when white teachers spoke to their black students about behavior, they were more likely to have an intense, highly charged interaction. Instead of privately pulling a student aside to have a conversation, for example, white teachers of black students yelled or threatened more often than teachers in race-matched settings.

These higher-intensity interactions often included physical gestures, and “quite a bit of stress in the teacher’s voice,” said Dan Battey, an associate professor of math education at Rutgers University, and the lead author of the study.

Black students who received this negative feedback performed worse than they had in the previous school year. One standard deviation increase in the number of negative interactions around behavior was associated with a 16 percent decrease in black students’ achievement. White students who were criticized for their behavior also showed lower performance, but not to a statistically significant degree.

“Those [students] who are being reprimanded more for behavior are often the ones who get removed from the classroom or [get] suspended,” which could account for some of the dip in performance, said Battey. But that alone likely isn’t the sole cause. Intense negative responses from teachers can also stamp out students’ motivation, he said, and cause them to shut down.

White and black teachers also spoke differently about students’ math abilities. Black teachers were more likely than white teachers to praise black students’ capabilities in the subject. In general, teachers didn’t speak about math ability very often—usually about once a lesson—but the positive reinforcement was correlated with higher black student achievement.

The researchers also measured how often teachers addressed students’ culture or language and how they set the emotional tone of the classroom. There were not enough instances of teachers addressing culture or language to do a quantitative analysis of the data, said Battey, though he noted that the results could be different in a district that prioritized culturally relevant pedagogy. The classroom’s emotional tone was not correlated with changes in student achievement.

Unconcious Biases

Other research has demonstrated that black students can see greater academic achievement, are more likely to go to college, and are less likely to be suspended when they have black teachers.

But this study raises a slightly different issue, said Battey: Why and how are white teachers treating white students differently than black students?

These results demonstrate the need for white educators to be more reflective about their practice in majority-black classrooms, said Battey.

“Be really careful about different situations that you escalate,” he said. Handling a behavior situation privately and respectfully is generally a better option than yelling or removing a student from the classroom, Battey said.

In math classrooms, white teachers can also be more intentional about finding moments to praise black students on their math ability, highlighting authentic examples of “mathematical brilliance,” he said.

But ultimately, the study raises questions that classroom management techniques can’t answer, said Battey.

When addressing student behavior in these videos, “a lot of times, teachers are responding very personally,” he said. “I think it’s fundamentally that the teachers see certain students as aggressive and violent, and therefore treat their behavior differently.”

It’s likely that white teachers’ unconscious biases are causing them to respond more harshly to black students, Battey said.

Image: Getty

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