By Macrina Cooper-White
Research has shown that young black students in American schools are expelled and suspended three times as often as white students. Now a disturbing new study from Stanford University reveals one factor behind such disproportionate punishment.
The study showed that teachers tend to view black students more harshly than white students even when their disruptive behavior is exactly the same — possibly triggering a destructive cycle.
“We have shown experimentally, for the first time, that teacher responses can contribute to racial disparities in discipline,” the researchers wrote in a paper describing their research, which was published online April 8 in the journal Psychological Science. “In fact, teacher responses may even help to drive racial differences in student behavior — differential treatment by teachers, to some extent, may inspire repeated misbehavior by black students.”
What’s in a name? For the study, a racially diverse group of more than 250 elementary and secondary teachers across the country were shown records that described two minor infractions committed by a student. Half of the records were labeled with stereotypically black names (such as Deshawn or Darnell), and half with stereotypically white names (such as Greg or Jake).
After reading about each infraction, the teachers were asked how bothered they were the student’s misbehavior, how severely they thought the student should be disciplined, and how likely they were to consider the student a “troublemaker.”
How did the teachers respond? When it came to a student’s first infraction, there was no difference in the teachers’ attitudes toward the white and black students. After reading about a second infraction, however, the teachers were more likely to feel troubled by the black students’ behavior, to want to mete out severe punishment, and to label the student a troublemaker.