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Going to the Principal's Office, in Black or White

Teachers react differently to misbehavior based on their students' race, according to a new study.
(Photo: milo827/Shutterstock)

(Photo: milo827/Shutterstock)

Despite decades of political debate, racial disparities continue to run rampant in American schools. One particularly important imbalance: the race gap in school discipline, especially suspension rates. Now, researchers have discovered an unfortunate revelation: Teachers come down harder on black students than whites for the same infractions.

A number of studies in recent years demonstrate white and black students aren't punished at the same rates. Last year, Department of Education data revealed that this discipline gap is substantial—enough so that it raised eyebrows in the Department of Justice—and can start as early as preschool.

But an explanation for the gap remained elusive, and without knowing what specific factors were behind the disparity, there wasn't much either researchers or educators could do about it, Stanford psychology graduate student Jason Okofonua writes in an email.

"Racially stigmatized students may be aware of teachers’ differential treatment and that might deteriorate their sense of trust in that teacher and a sense belonging at school in general."

With that in mind, he and Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt contacted 57 teachers nationwide and asked them to review a disciplinary record for a student named either Darnell, Deshawn, Greg, or Jake—in other words, stereotypically black or white names. The teachers read about two incidents and after each one answered a series of questions about how severe they thought the misbehavior was, to what degree they should be punished, and so on. Finally, the team asked each teacher how likely it was that the student he or she read about was a "troublemaker."

Teachers reacted the same to both black and white students after reading about the first incident, and their reactions to white students didn't much change after the second one. But the data tell a different story for black students: After the second infraction, teachers reported being around 25 percent more troubled by black students' behavior compared with white students (or their feelings about black students after the first infraction). Similarly, teachers felt that black students should be punished about 30 percent more severely after their second infraction, as well as how severely they thought white students should be punished after either incident.

"I think most teachers are well intentioned and hard working people. Thus, I think that it is important to help teachers understand that stereotyping can get in the way of their intentions," Okonofua writes. "For students, this means that racially stigmatized students may be aware of teachers’ differential treatment and that might deteriorate their sense of trust in that teacher and a sense belonging at school in general." And without trust and a sense of belonging, Okonofua explains, poor academic performance, delinquency, and dropping out all become more likely.

But there is hope. In a separate series of experiments, Okonofua and colleagues Gregory Walton and David Paunesku suggest that "refocusing teachers' attention on maintaining positive relationships with students, rather than on meting out discipline, makes teachers less punitive towards students," Okonofua writes. "This would be beneficial for all students but especially students from racially stigmatized groups who are more likely to receive severe discipline."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.