What did the researchers want to know?
Does race influence teachers’ perceptions of student misbehavior?
What did the researchers do?
Okonofua and Eberhardt conducted two related studies.
The researchers recruited 57 K-12 teachers (38 white, 2 black, 1 Asian, 16 of unknown race) from various school districts across the United States. They showed each teacher a school record for a middle school student who had misbehaved twice, asking them to imagine they were the student’s teacher. The student was assigned either a stereotypically Black name (Darnell or Deshawn) or a stereotypically White name (Greg or Jake). After reading about each of the student’s two behavior infractions (one for insubordination and one for class disturbance), the teacher was asked to answer the following questions on a scale ranging from 1, not at all, to 7, extremely:
- How severe was the student’s misbehavior?
- To what extent is the student hindering you from maintaining order in your class?
- How irritated do you feel by the student?
- How severely should the student be disciplined?
The order of the two infractions (class disturbance/insubordination) varied randomly across participants to mitigate order effect. After reading and responding to both infractions, the teacher was asked to rate the likelihood they would say the student is a troublemaker. Finally, they asked how likely it was that the student was Black and what they suspected was the study’s hypothesis. (These final questions were used to identify any participants who may have been manipulating their responses based on their assumptions about the study’s hypothesis.)
The first study was replicated with 204 more K-12 teachers (166 White, 17 Black, 10 Asian, 6 Latino, 2 other, 3 unknown) with an addition: After teachers rated the likelihood they would say the student was a troublemaker, they were also prompted to rate the extent to which they felt the student’s behaviors indicated a pattern and the likelihood they would imagine suspending the student at some point.
What did the researchers find?
Although teachers’ ratings of infraction severity, hindrance, and irritation did not vary by race in reaction to the first infraction, there was a statistically significant difference by race for the second infraction, with teachers rating students with stereotypically Black names more harshly than students with stereotypically White names. Similarly, teachers felt the students with stereotypically Black names should be disciplined more severely after the second infraction than students with stereotypically White names. “Thus, after only two strikes, racial disparities in discipline emerge” (p. 620). Furthermore, “the more likely teachers were to think the student was Black … the more likely they were to label the student a troublemaker” (p. 620).
Again, teachers’ ratings after the second infraction revealed perceptions that the misbehavior was more severe, more irritating, and more of a hindrance and warranted more severe discipline when the student had a stereotypically Black name. In addition, “the more likely the teachers were to think the student was Black, the more likely they were to label the student a troublemaker” (p. 621) and “the more likely they were to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future” (p. 622).
What does this mean for my classroom?
Though many studies and statistics show Black students are disciplined at higher rates and/or with greater severity, most only show a correlation. However, the findings of this study show a direct causal relationship between race and perceptions of misbehavior. According to Okonofua and Eberhardt, “what we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when Black and White students behave in the same manner. We have shown experimentally, for the first time, that teacher responses can contribute to racial disparities in discipline” (p. 622).
Since teaching is a helping profession, it can be assumed most teachers choose their career out of a desire to help others and make a difference. Like the teachers who participated in this study, though, none of us are immune to implicit bias. All educators must work to heighten awareness of their own implicit biases to help ensure all students are treated fairly and have equal opportunities for success.
If you want to become more race-conscious, here are some great books:
- “Music Education for Social Change” by Juliet Hess
- “Marginalized Voices in Music Education” edited by Brent Talbot
- “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
- “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
- “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad
In memory of George Floyd and far too many others.