Teachers More Likely to Perceive Negative Patterns of Behavior in Black Students, Study Finds

A new study out of Stanford University corroborates that children of color are often more severely disciplined in school than their white peers — often with lifelong consequences — and seeks to explain the psychological processes that lead to these outcomes.

“For black students [these disparities] not only contribute to school failure but also can lay a path toward incarceration,” the report’s authors, Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, write in the study, published in the journal Psychological Science.

In order to get a better picture of the psychology behind disciplinary actions, Eberhardt and Okonofua showed the records of a fictional student to a total of 244 K-12 teachers. The records were the same in that they all indicated the student had committed two minor classroom infractions: insubordination and creating a disturbance in the classroom. But some records were labeled with a stereotypically black name, such as Deshawn or Darnell, while others were labeled with a stereotypically white name, such as Greg or Jake.

As the teachers reviewed the records, they were asked after reading about each infraction what they thought of the student.

The researchers found that although the teachers viewed the files similarly no matter which name was on them after the first infraction, teachers were more likely to express being “troubled” by the student’s behavior after the second infraction if they were shown the presumably black student’s file, and were more likely to recommend severe punishments.

Teachers were even more likely to say that they would eventually recommend suspension for the black student.

The researchers suggest this means that racial bias is stronger in how teachers perceive patterns in student behavior or misbehavior than it is in responses to individual actions. They term this phenomenon the “black-escalation effect.”

And with the stakes so high even in elementary school programs, the report’s authors say, it’s worth examining “how a teacher’s views of students can have an effect even when it’s just a matter of minor misbehavior.”

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