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New Study Reveals Race of Students Triggers Alarming Bias in Teacher Expectations

Elementary school teacher helping student in classroom

A new study published in The Economics of Education Review conducted by economists from American University’s School of Public Affairs and Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Economics found sweeping bias in teachers’ expectations of black students. The study found that non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students.

“This is a big concern since teacher expectations likely shape student success, not just in school, but in life as well,” said co-author Seth Gershenson, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “It’s important that all teachers maintain and convey high expectations for all students.”

The new research, led by Gershenson and Johns Hopkins professor, Nicholas Papageorge, identifies systematic biases in teachers’ expectations using data from a nationally representative survey of U.S. 10th graders that asked two teachers per student how much education they expected the student to ultimately complete. Having two teachers per student is central to the research strategy. Distinguishing biases in teachers' expectations is difficult, since students who have black teachers may differ from students who have white teachers in systematic ways (e.g., living in different neighborhoods, attending different schools). The researchers eliminated these concerns by comparing two teachers’ expectations — one black and one non-black — for the same student, at the same point in time.

“We found that a non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher,” said Papageorge. “This isn’t meant to lay blame, since bias is part of human nature, but it provides a place to start a dialogue between educators, policymakers, parents, researchers, and other stakeholders.”

The findings highlight the need to better understand how teachers form expectations, what types of interventions can reduce or eliminate biases in teacher expectations, and perhaps most importantly, how such expectations and biases affect the long-run student outcomes. The systematic biases in teachers’ expectations may also illustrate the importance of hiring of a more representative teaching force and allow for more teacher training to nurture, support, and encourage all students, regardless of their innate ability, talents, behaviors, or home circumstances.

Gershenson is an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. He is an expert on educational policy. To read more about Gershenson and his work, visit this page.