TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Confronting our biases in student discipline cases

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Racial disparities have long been observed in school discipline records. Stanford University researchers Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt shed new light on teachers' own perceptions about race and the role those perceptions play in who gets disciplined. 

Researchers recruited about 250 K-12 teachers from across the U.S. to participate in an online experimental study. They were asked to review student discipline records, enabling researchers to distinguish those students perceived as serial "troublemakers" from those only guilty of some routine hi-jinks. While the race of the students was not identified, the researchers assigned each either a fake and stereotypically Black name (e.g., DeShawn) or a White one (e.g., Jake). Most of the participating teachers were female, White, around 40 years of age and fairly experienced. 

Each student had committed two minor infractions. After reviewing a student's first infraction, teachers' assessments were similar regardless of the student's presumed race. However, following the second infraction, teachers viewed the (presumably) Black students' misbehavior as significantly more serious, warranting more severe discipline. They were more likely to label those students as "troublemakers"—more likely requiring future discipline. 

Prejudice runs deep and solutions to racial biases in education may not be any clearer than racial biases in policing. As with most problems, admitting that there is one (e.g., having teachers confront their own biases) is a good starting point. Recall this popular riddle from the 1980s with an answer that seems obvious now, but wasn't then:

A man and his son were in a horrible car accident. The man died. The son was taken to the hospital and immediately taken into the operating room. The doctor took one look at the boy and said "I can't operate on this child. He's my son."\

If you're scratching your head, you've got some work to do.