Teachers are just as likely to have racial biases as non-teachers, a recent study finds—suggesting that schools need to do more work to combat stereotypes and discrimination.
In a paper titled “Teachers Are People Too,” which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, a team of researchers from Princeton and Tufts universities compare teachers’ explicit and implicit biases with those of other American adults. The findings, they say, are not necessarily a surprise. But as Americans work to confront racism in society, educators need to acknowledge that they play an ongoing role in perpetuating racial inequality in schools, experts say.
“Our schools are a microcosm of society,” said Jordan Starck, an author of the study and a doctoral student in the department of psychology at Princeton. “Given what we know of how pervasive bias is, ... I didn’t suspect that either the selection process [of who becomes a teacher] or being in school [with children of different races] would be strong enough to curb that pervasive bias.”
First, the researchers examined data from Project Implicit, which collects hundreds of thousands of results from self-administered Implicit Association Tests, as well as explicit measures. Researchers gathered a dataset of 1.6 million respondents, which included 68,930 teachers. (The average age among teachers was about 35, while the average age of non-teachers was 29.)
The test measures how quickly and accurately respondents pair white faces with positive words and black faces with negative words in comparison to the inverse. Seventy-seven percent of teachers demonstrated implicit bias, compared with 77.1 percent of non-teachers. Then, researchers subtracted respondents’ reported warmth toward black people from their reported warmth toward white people to measure explicit bias. They found that 30.3 percent of teachers showed explicit bias, compared with 30.4 percent of non-teachers.
Since Project Implicit is not nationally representative and relies on self-selected participants, the researchers repeated their study with a second national dataset, the American National Election Study in 2008. The researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of 1,984 people, which included 63 teachers. (The average age of teachers was 43.2 years, while the average age of non-teachers was 47.4 years.)
Respondents were asked to judge Chinese characters as “pleasant” or “unpleasant” after being shown pictures of a black or white young adult male face. The researchers found no significant association between occupation and level of bias.
“Teachers are probably more well-intentioned than the general population, but they still have the same bias levels,” Starck said.
The researchers controlled for demographic factors, including level of education. While in general, white people are more likely to have racial biases than black people, Starck said the researchers did not compare white teachers’ levels of bias to those of teachers of color.
What Biases Look Like in the Classroom
This study comes in a moment of reckoning over race, with protests sweeping the country over police killings of unarmed black men and women. Teachers are grappling with how to talk to their students about racism and white privilege. Eighty percent of teachers are white, while about half of students are.
Starck said teachers’ racial biases tend to influence the expectations they have for their students, the quality of their teaching, and the choices in how they manage their classrooms. Past research has found that black students are less likely to be placed in gifted education classes and more likely to receive exclusionary discipline (such as detentions and suspension) when they have white teachers. White teachers also tend to have far lower expectations for black students than they do for white students, which can contribute to high school graduation and college-enrollment rates.
“Teachers’ bias levels are related to student outcomes—the more biased teachers are, the worse students’ outcomes are,” Starck said. “Teachers perceive, evaluate, and treat students differently on the basis of their race, and there’s a big role for bias to play in those disparities.”
Teachers are more likely to act on their biases when decisions are ambiguous, Starck said, like when they write up a student for insubordination—an infraction that has no clear definition. They also are more likely to act on their biases when they’re tired, he said.
“The more tired we are, the less we override [our biases] and the more likely we are to rely on stereotypes,” Starck said. “The more we ask of our teachers, the more likely they are to rely on biases even against their own will. They don’t have the cognitive resources to override the biases.”
‘Good Intentions’ Not Enough
These findings are not meant to “be read as blaming teachers,” Starck said. Instead, they highlight a need for more resources and more support to manage racial biases.
“This isn’t a battle for teachers to fight themselves,” he said.
Instead, Starck and other researchers said, school leaders should both provide in-depth professional development to teachers that asks them to address their own biases and put in place policies to prevent those biases from harming students.
“The first thing principals can do is to educate themselves and their staff that racism exists,” said Tracey Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and the co-author of the book Unconscious Bias in Schools.
And with the current national conversation on racism, he said, “it’s a perfect opportunity—a large part of America is waking up finally.”
But awareness only goes so far. “Teachers believe that good intentions will mitigate their biases, and that’s just not true,” Benson said. “Consciousness- and awareness-raising doesn’t lead to better action.”
Some districts have started to hold trainings that aim to make teachers aware of their unconscious biases and reflect on how to change their behaviors in the classroom. This sort of professional development that asks teachers to critically examine their own identity and actions is a step beyond what has traditionally taken place in schools, experts say.
“Schools still overwhelmingly focus on professional development that centers diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, which are often ways of approaching schooling as a place for everyone to belong and for everyone to appreciate each other,” said Kathleen King Thorius, the executive director of the Great Lakes Equity Center in Indianapolis. “It sounds good and nice to address diversity and equity and inclusion, but those often just scratch the surface.”
School leaders need to facilitate conversations where teachers explicitly examine the ways racism manifests in school policies and processes, she said. These discussions should be ongoing and happening in conjunction with other policy changes, researchers say.
“It’s a tall task to ask a diversity trainer to come in and reduce people’s biases—that’s going to take a lot of time, and it might not even be possible,” Starck said. “But what we can do is manage the biases in our schools that exist, so they have less of an impact on students.”
For example, Benson said school leaders should look at all student data—including test scores, attendance, discipline records, advanced course enrollment, and dropout rates—through a racial lens to pinpoint discrepancies. They should also conduct classroom observations through a race and gender lens: Who are teachers calling on? Which students are getting in trouble?
Even so, Starck said, individual schools can only do so much. A growing percentage of schools are becoming racially segregated once again, and schools that are predominately black and Hispanic are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty. Those schools often have fewer experienced and effective teachers than schools with a more affluent student body.
“There needs to be advocacy for a larger societal change, or the same sorts of biases will keep perpetuating themselves,” he said.