Students’ Race Affects How Teachers Judge Misbehavior, Study Says

By Jordan Moeny — April 20, 2015 2 min read
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Racial disparities in school discipline are well-documented: According to recent studies, students of color are disciplined and taken out of class at higher rates than their white peers, and black students are more likely to be punished for subjective offenses like “defiance.” A new study out of Stanford University, published in Psychological Science, aims to dig a little deeper into this by looking at how a student’s race may play into teachers’ reactions to discipline problems.

Over the course of two studies, Jennifer Eberhardt and Jason Okonofua, a Stanford psychology professor and graduate student, respectively, presented a total of 244 K-12 teachers (53 in the first study, 191 in the second) from across the country with a fictional student’s disciplinary records. The records were labeled with either a stereotypically black name (Deshawn or Darnell) or a stereotypically white one (Greg or Jake). In either case, the student had committed two minor offenses, insubordination and classroom disturbance. After reading about each infraction, the teachers were asked about their attitudes toward the student.

Though the two “students” were viewed similarly after only one infraction, teachers who had the black student’s file were more likely to feel “troubled” by the student’s behavior and to recommend more severe punishments for him after the second instance of misbehavior.

In the second of the two studies, researchers also asked the teachers to rate how certain they were of the student’s race. They found that teachers who were more sure that the student was black were also more likely to feel that the student was a “troublemaker” and that his behaviors were part of a pattern.

In addition, the researchers asked the teachers to imagine whether or not they would recommend the student for suspension in the future; despite having only been shown minor instances of misbehavior for both students, teachers were more likely to say they would eventually recommend suspending the black student than the white one.

Taken together, the authors say, the studies’ results suggest that teachers tend to respond to patterns of misbehavior rather than students’ individual actions. According to the researchers, that matches up with the real-world data. They found that racial disparities in school suspensions were even larger when looking specifically at students who had been suspended more than once.

The study’s authors call this phenomenon the “black-escalation effect” and say that it shows definitively that teachers’ attitudes play an important role in the school-discipline racial disparities. They attribute the results to the negative stereotypes often applied to black students.

Teachers involved in the study were predominantly white and female, much like the teaching profession. That said, the study only involved male students’ records.

The authors point out that given the connection between discipline and a student’s success, both academically and outside of school, it’s worth taking a closer look at how a teacher’s views of students can have an effect even when it’s just a matter of minor misbehavior.

Image: Results from the second study show the reaction of teachers to disciplinary issues based on the student’s race. Graphic courtesy of Jason Okonofua, Jennifer Eberhardt, and Psychological Science.

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

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