When Teachers Overcompensate for Racial Prejudice

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A new study suggests that educators are wary of critiquing minority students -- and in the process, actually undermining children's self-esteem.

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The performance gap between white and minority students is one of the most persisting problems in American education. Since the 1990s, the performance gap, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has more or less stagnated. While a multitude of factors contribute to the disparity -- most glaringly the quality of instruction in poorly funded schools -- there are some underlying psychological factors as well.

One widely documented phenomenon is called stereotype threat: When confronted with a racial bias (for example, a suggestion that black students do not perform well on a task), stereotyped students actually don't do as well compared to control groups. This, in part, explains why black students may not perform as well on high-stakes tests such as the SATs. Some studies have even shown that the threat can diminish short-term memory.

Another psychological roadblock, as outlined in a recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, is a tendency for white teachers to judge minority students' work less critically than white students'. 

It's called positive feedback bias, but its effects are largely negative. "There's nothing wrong with getting positive feedback," says Kent Harber, lead researcher of the study. But "what happens is that when the feedback is inaccurate, it doesn't provide a valid fix as to where a student is actually performing. Then they don't know where they need to best direct their efforts. It's like having a biased compass."

Furthermore, the minority students are implicitly aware that this is happening, which increases their distrust of their white teachers and fuels disinterest in schoolwork. 

 "When black students get positive feedback from a white, and they believe that the white is aware of their race, not only does their self esteem not get bolstered by the positive feedback -- it is actually depressed," Harber says.

In the study, 126 teachers from the New York metropolitan area were asked to edit essays supposedly written by a black, Latino, or white student. They weren't told the the student's racial demographics, but the researchers provided students' names that hinted at it (Taisha or Jarell for black students, Mark or Molly for white students). The teachers were told their comments would be delivered back to the students. In actuality, there were no students and the essays were assembled to mimic a C-grade level ability.

The researchers found that the teachers were indeed not grading the black and Latino students as critically as the white ones. This trend has been documented before, but the deeper question Harber and his colleagues were trying to answer was the source of the teacher's motivation. What compelled them to be less critical of minority students?

Political correctness is often seen as an effort to keep up appearances, but Harber's group found that something different was going on here. The teachers were trying to preserve a self image of being unbiased. The research group came to this conclusion this because the teachers didn't show bias toward the objective aspects of the essay -- the grammar or the spelling -- but rather the subjective aspects like ideas and logic. And as the paper states, "criticizing subjective features of writing raises the risk of appearing unfair because there are few established standards to justifying such criticism."

"There might be multiple causes [for positive feedback bias], but the one that seems particularly potent is a self-image concern, that the whites don't want to see themselves as prejudiced, independent of how other people see them," Harber says. "What happens, I believe, is their focus gets distracted from what are the needs of the students to what are ways that I can restore my self image."

So how can this problem be solved? Harber and his colleagues found that teachers who have greater social support at school are less likely to show a positive feedback bias toward black students. The theory is that teachers with support feel less anxious about their performance and can concentrate on being fair graders.

"What social support does, among other things, is that it buffers feelings of threat," Harber says. "When people are feeling threatened their focus tends to go inward: 'How do I make myself feel better?' 'How do I feel safer?' It becomes about me. When people feel less threat, they can focus outward. In this case it's 'What are the needs of my students, how can I help them?'"

This social support, which mitigated the positive feedback bias toward black students, did not, however, change teachers' behavior toward Latinos. But Harber suggests there might be separate causes -- such as sympathy towards students who learned English as a second language.

Perhaps the best way to mitigate racial concerns in the classroom, Harber says, is for teachers to straightforwardly tell students they are tough graders who will give marks solely based on performance. It's a simple solution, but it has been shown to work. A 1999 study from Stanford University found that teachers who invoked these high standards gained greater trust from minority students. "In fact, the motivation of black students provided with criticism in this wise manner improved so dramatically that it slightly surpassed that of their white peers," the authors concluded. Simply put: When a student is challenged fairly, he or she rises to the challenge. And when a minority student has a greater sense of confidence, Harber says, the performance gap narrows.

"One conclusion which I would not want drawn is that this is not about bad teachers," Harber says. "It is easy to look at this and say here are these teachers are self-focused. That would be very much the wrong conclusion to draw. I think a better conclusion is that it is important to create circumstances and environments where both teachers and students feel they are being taken at face value -- that their attention can be jointly focused on what it takes to learn and rather than being self-protective. Correcting environments, rather than trying to correct people, would be the take-home point."

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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