Education represents a path to economic and social opportunity for people across the political spectrum. However, it’s evident that this path is racially skewed. Disparities in graduation rates, test scores, school resources, and disciplinary probations demonstrate the profound impact race has on a student’s academic success. Explanations for these racial disparities include, for better or for worse, students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, their personalities, and the social dynamics of the racial groups of which they are a part. But student-centered factors do not tell the whole story. There is another crucial component of the education system that may have a greater impact on the racial education gap: teachers.
There is a serious diversity gap in teacher hiring practices. Nearly half of all students in the United States are people of color, but this is true for only 18 percent of teachers. Of teachers of color, only 2 percent are Black males. This racial mismatch has serious consequences for all students, especially students of color. Most directly, it creates a dearth of Black teachers as role models. But it also manifests in white and Black teachers treating their students differently due to subconscious, implicit racial biases. This is not to say that white teachers are knowingly racist; internalized social biases affect teachers’ behavior more than they may perceive.
The most prominent research in this field deals with Black students’ experiences. Studies in neuroscience and social psychology have shown that people harbor implicit biases due to socialization and internalized cultural messages. These biases originate from what psychologist Daniel Kahneman defines as the fast part of the brain, the system that makes automatic and rapid decisions, without a sense of voluntary control. They are pernicious precisely because they are not easily recognizable.
These implicit biases affect teachers’ expectations of their students, depending both on the race of the teacher and that of the student. When a Black teacher and a white teacher evaluate the same Black student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will complete a four-year college degree. White teachers are also almost 40 percent less likely to expect their Black students to graduate high school. This is important because teacher expectations profoundly impact student achievement, working as self-fulfilling prophecies. Teachers with lower expectations for some students may provide less feedback on student errors, offer less positive feedback after successes, and give these students less time to answer questions. As such, teachers’ lower expectations for their Black students hinder these students’ academic opportunities, perpetuating the racial gap.
Furthermore, studies show that white teachers are more likely to monitor their Black students for negative behavior, causing those students to receive disciplinary actions at disproportionate rates. Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students and are nearly twice as likely to be expelled. This holds true for students of all ages, including preschoolers. Race clearly plays some role in the punitive measures taken against students.
Some may claim that the disparity between white students and students of color is due to socioeconomic, cultural, or other factors. However, this student-centric view again ignores the role that teachers play in over-identifying negative behavior of Black students. For example, a group of white teachers was shown a video of a preschool classroom asked to identify challenging behavior, even though no such behavior actually existed in the video. Eye-tracking technology revealed that the teachers showed a tendency to observe Black students, particularly boys, more closely, gravitating towards students who they expected to engage in difficult behavior. In fact, 42 percent of teachers identified the Black boy as deserving of disciplinary action.
The disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions caused by implicit racial biases widens the academic achievement gap between races. When students miss school due to disciplinary actions, they spend less time in the classroom learning. Psychologically, suspensions have the auxiliary negative consequence of causing students to be “less bonded to school, less invested in school rules and coursework, [and] less motivated to achieve academic success.”
When the teacher and the student are of the same race, the teacher is less likely to adopt punitive measures toward the student. A UC Davis study found that “exposure to same-race teachers significantly reduces the number of referrals for defiance-related incidents, a pattern that is consistent across all grade levels.” This is likely due to the human bias of in-group favoritism, in which people are more helpful to people with shared identifiers. As such, more Black teachers in schools would likely lead to fewer suspensions and disciplinary measures taken against Black students.
Currently, the disciplinary system in American schools is based on the idea of “keeping the bad kids out so the good kids can learn.” However, this idea is flawed; the best way to ensure success for all students could be to reduce such punitive measures. The state of California has pushed to reduce suspensions and in doing so, has found that districts with lower suspension rates are correlated with higher district achievement. Other studies have found that lowering punitive measures minimizes racial disparities in disciplinary action, especially for disruption or defiance. Disproportionately denying students of color time in the classroom shuts them out of the learning process, hindering their opportunities for academic achievement.
Lastly, having more Black teachers in the workforce creates a role model effect for Black students. A John Hopkins study found that having at least one Black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a Black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent, and for very low-income Black boys, their chance of dropping out fell by 39 percent. This race-match effect can be beneficial for Black students because it gives them someone with similar experiences to look up to. It can give them a sense of empowerment, knowing that they, too, can achieve leadership positions in the classroom or community.
There are two solutions to the problem of racial bias that would be politically feasible and effective. The first would be affirmative action measures for hiring more teachers of color. Reforms could include expanding the recruiting pool, standardizing the interview process, and setting racial quotas for teachers. States should require schools to prove that they are taking active measures to mitigate racial disparities among teachers. Schools that fail to do so could face budget cuts or other punitive measures.
Governments and school districts should also institute teacher training programs to help teachers become aware of how their subconscious biases influence their behavior. While implicit biases are hard to change, teachers can learn how to control and improve their responses to them. Cultural competency trainings have shown marked success in the healthcare field. Doctors and nurses receive training on forming interpersonal relationships that take into account cultural and social differences. These programs have improved “the knowledge, attitudes, and skills of health professionals,” as well as the satisfaction of patients. Training programs like these can be applied to the education sector; policymakers should mandate training programs designed to recognize implicit biases and intervene when they occur.
Some counties have begun to implement similar changes with remarkable success. Pinellas County in Florida has attempted to align the proportion of disciplinary actions with the demographic makeup of the school. The county has also increased the number of minority teachers in schools. In doing so, it has seen an increase in Black graduation rates and overall student achievement. Other school districts can learn from this example.
Education has the potential to unify and elevate all students. To realize this potential, the US must transform its racially-skewed educational system. Currently, teachers are part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution. In order to equalize opportunities for students of all races, there must be a change in hiring practices and training techniques for teachers. In this way, education can truly become a path to success for all.