Are educators showing a ‘positive bias’ to minority students?

Carla Capizzi
EurekAlert

And keeping them from doing their best?

Remember that teacher you grumbled about back in your school days, the really tough one who made you work so hard, insisted you could do better, and made you sweat for your A’s? The one you didn’t appreciate until after you graduated and realized how much you had learned?

Minority students in the U.S. might have fewer of those teachers, at least compared to white students, and as a result they might be at a significant learning disadvantage.

A major study, led by Rutgers-Newark psychology professor Kent D. Harber, indicates that public school teachers under-challenge minority students by providing them more positive feedback than they give to white students, for work of equal merit. The study, which is currently available online at http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2012-10763-001/ in the Journal of Educational Psychology (JEP), involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other more working class and racially mixed.

Teachers read and commented on a poorly written essay which they believed was composed by a student in a writing class. Some teachers thought the student was black, some thought the student was Latino, and some thought that the student was white. Teachers believed that their feedback would be sent directly to the student, in order to see how the student would benefit from their comments and advice.

In fact, there was no actual student, and the poorly written essay was developed by Harber and his team. The real purpose was to see how teachers would respond to subpar work due to the race of the student who composed it. As Harber and his team predicted, the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias,” providing more praise and less criticism if they thought the essay was written by a minority student than by a white student.

An important aspect of the positive bias was that it depended on how much social support teachers received from their fellow teachers and administrators—but only if the student was black. In This case, teachers lacking social support showed the positive bias, while those who enjoyed support did not show the bias. Teachers who thought the student was Latino showed the bias, regardless of their school-based social support.

Read More: Are educators showing a ‘positive bias’ to minority students?

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