Teaching Profession

Here’s How Teachers’ Racial Attitudes Compare to Those of Average Americans

By Madeline Will — October 04, 2017 4 min read
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Compared to noneducators, teachers express less-negative racial stereotypes and report less social distance and resentments toward minority groups, a new paper finds—but some teachers do still have problematic attitudes toward race.

The paper uses nationally representative data from the General Social Survey, which surveys samples of the U.S. population, to compare the racial attitudes of preK-12 teachers, postsecondary educators, and the general population of the United States from 1972 to 2014. David Quinn, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the author of the report, said this is the first descriptive picture of teachers’ racial attitudes.

The term “racial attitudes” refers to beliefs and stereotypes that people hold regarding different racial and ethnic groups. Quinn said it’s important to understand teachers’ attitudes toward race to understand how they view and interact with different groups of students.

Some findings:

  • Educators are more likely to believe a racist should be allowed to teach at a college and less likely to believe a racist book should be removed from the library, erring on the side of free speech.
  • Educators were more likely than noneducators to believe that inequalities between black and white Americans in jobs, income, and housing are mainly due to structural factors, like discrimination, rather than biological or cultural ones. About 30 percent of preK-12 teachers attributed inequalities to a lack of motivation among African Americans, compared to 46 percent of noneducators.
  • Forty-four percent of preK-12 teachers would not point to insufficient educational opportunities for African Americans as an explanation for inequalities, which Quinn said was “disappointing.” He theorized that teachers who prioritize education as a means to equity would incorporate that belief into their work.
  • Educators reported less social distance from nonwhite groups—they were more likely to say that they’d be fine living in a diverse neighborhood and that someone in their family brought a friend of a different race home for dinner over the past few years.

The differences between educators and noneducators, Quinn said, are mainly explained by educational attainment: Teachers are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the general population. People who go to college typically have more positive racial attitudes.

While some teachers might develop more positive racial attitudes after working with diverse students, Quinn said he doesn’t think that fully explains the differences in viewpoints: He could also see teachers developing negative racial attitudes after having a difficult class, he said.

“The goal of social justice ... that’s not the majority of teachers,” he said.

The general public rated African Americans as more lazy and more violence-prone than did educators, and educators rated white people as neutral on intelligence and work ethic, in contrast to noneducators, who viewed that group as slightly more intelligent and hardworking.

Both educators and noneducators rated Asian Americans as being more hardworking—and educators did so to a greater extent than the general public. Educators also rated Asians as being more intelligent and less violent.

“We’re not really sure what the effect of this might be,” Quinn said. “There’s research that having positive expectations of students is beneficial. There’s also research showing there’s a reverse stereotype threat.”

Asian-American students who don’t fit into the “model minority myth” might be overlooked by teachers, and miss out on academic supports. This phenomenon might even decrease Asian-American students’ own expectations, research has found.

See also: Who the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype Hurts Most (Opinion)

Next, Quinn said he will study teachers’ implicit racist biases. Datasets like these, he said, have certain limitations.

“You never know how forthcoming people will be,” he said. “With implicit bias, it’s harder for people to fake.”

He plans to look at teachers’ stereotypes on intelligence and warmth, which “begins with an impression of an intention people in a group have toward you or your group, and that affects how you interact with them,” Quinn said. “Those interactions affect relationships teachers have with their students and the learning that comes up.”

Another recent study found that teachers report weaker relationships with Asian-American students, Latino students, and children of immigrants.

In his paper, Quinn concluded that while educators largely have more positive racial attitudes than the general public, “students would be better off if fewer educators explained inequalities through racial differences in motivation or willpower, and if more perceived education as playing a corrective role.” He called for more research looking at how interventions can raise teachers’ awareness of problematic attitudes and how those attitudes affect their students.

For teachers who want to see if they hold any biases, take this short online quiz, developed by psychologists and adapted for Education Week readers. And then review the results from more than 600 education professionals: Educators gave a slight edge to applicants who appeared black rather than white, even if they had lower average grade point averages or less favorable interviews.

Read more from Education Week’s series on bias and stereotypes in schools.

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