When working with students of color, particularly Black students, teachers lower down the rigor of assignments, ask fewer open-ended questions, and assign worksheets instead of group assignments, according to a new study out of New York University. Researchers point to racial biases about the academic abilities of students of color as a major factor.
“It’s not this overt ‘I have more Black students, I’m going to be racist,’ but I think it’s that when they go into a classroom that has more Black students it’s instinctual that the teachers actually kind of lower their standards. They use less-rigorous instruction,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an NYU associate professor and sociologist and lead author of the study.
Research in the past has focused on how Black and Latino students are more likely than white peers to have teachers with one year or less of experience in the classroom, which can correlate with lower educational outcomes. But Cherng and his co-authors found that racial bias came into play in classroom instruction regardless of the teacher’s credentials or racial background.
The study, published last month, relied on a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded survey of U.S. public school teachers’ recorded classroom work from 2010 to 2012 in both English language arts and math classes in 7 large metropolitan areas. The data was evaluated by a third party group and then analyzed by the study’s authors. The goal was to determine to what extent teaching-effectiveness was due to differences among teachers or differences among classrooms taught by the same teacher; and whether factors such as student demographics play a role.
While the study found that instructional quality overall varied between classrooms taught by the same teacher, whenever there was a classroom of predominantly students of color teachers were systematically less likely to use proven instructional models they used with white students. For example, in a classroom with more white students, teachers were more likely to have them participate in group projects, Cherng said. But when there were students of color they used more individualized work such as filling out worksheets. In this latter case, teachers werelikely buying into a perceived bias that students of color are rowdier and would require more behavior management, Cherng said.
This kind of discrepancy was more prevalent in math classes than ELA classes. For example, teachers were less likely to ask Black students open-ended questions, limiting their ability to engage in an academic discussion by only allowing for one-word responses. This was likely due to a perceived bias that these students couldn’t handle such a discussion, Cherng added.
Solutions to resolve this disproportional lowering of teaching quality can be found in systemic changes within education, Cherng and others note.
Eric Duncan, senior P-12 data and policy analyst at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color, encourages more culturally responsive training and implicit bias training for teachers in tandem with greater efforts to recruit and retain more teachers of color—the latter being a challenge exacerbated by staffing shortages and teacher burnout made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, Duncan said.
Specialized training, the diversification of the teacher workforce, and an overhaul of teacher preparation programs need to happen together, Cherng said, in part due to his study finding that teachers of color were not exempt from subscribing to anti-Black biases about their students.
Cherng notes that teachers are often trained to teach in a way that ends up aligning with racial bias and teachers of color, in particular, are not trained to draw on their identities and backgrounds as assets for working with students of color.
Given that the teachers in his study did display high- quality instruction, just not for all students, Cherng has hope for change to occur.
“Teachers can clearly do a good job,” he said. “Now we need to help them to make sure that they do a good job in an equitable way.”