When it comes to student behavior, what’s polite or rude—what counts as acting out versus what’s seen as healthy youthful exuberance—depends not only on actual behavior but on how teachers read behavior. Black and white American cultures are still sufficiently different in that how teachers read behavior depends in part on the teacher’s race. New research shows that black and white teachers give very different evaluations of behavior of black students. When a black student has a black teacher that teacher is much, much less likely to see behavioral problems than when the same black student has a white teacher.
New research by Adam Wright, “Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Disruptive Behavior: The Effect of Racial Congruence and Consequences for School Suspension,” documents that black teachers have much less negative views of black student behavior than do white teachers. (Conflict of interest notice…hmmm no, braggin’ notice: Wright is one of my PhD students.) Wright looks first at teacher evaluations of behavior, and then at data on school suspensions. Let’s begin with the teacher evaluations.
Wright uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to follow the experience of more than 20,000 students in kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grade. During the elementary school years, teachers were asked to assess a number of noncognitive skills. The measure of interest here is “externalizing problem behaviors,” which asks how often the student “argues, fights, gets angry, acts impulsively, and disrupts ongoing activities.” Notice that we see a measure of teacher perception, rather than counts of disciplinary events. Wright focuses on externalizing behavior because this measure is highly correlated with school suspensions.
On a scale in which the average measure of externalizing behavior is normalized to zero, white and Hispanic students average -0.07, while black students average +0.37. (Asian students average -0.38.) So on average, black students are viewed as having much worse behavior—which presumably reflects some combination of objectively worse behavior and perceived worse behavior.
Wright does something very clever, taking advantage of the fact that students are observed several times and that we know which students are in which classes with which teachers. Wright asks how black students are rated by black teachers, controlling for both the average rating of an individual student by all his teachers and for the average rating a particular teacher of all of her students in a given class. What this means is that Wright can identify how a black student’s behavior is perceived by a black teacher as compared to how the same student is perceived by white teachers. The procedure also adjusts for the possibility that black teachers are just more “easy going,” because the average rating given in a class is effectively subtracted off. So Wright is arguably identifying a causal effect of black students being matched with black teachers.
Being race matched matters a lot for black students but not for others
Bottom line: black teachers are much less likely to find problems with black students than white teachers are with the same students. The difference is enormous, accounting for about half the black/white externalizing behavior gap. (Remember that the data does not tell us whether black teachers have different perceptions of black students or whether student/teacher race matching leads to objectively different behavior.) For black students, being matched with a black teacher matters.
Bottom line: black teachers are much less likely to find problems with black students than white teachers are with the same students.
How about white or Hispanic students being matched with white or Hispanic teachers, respectively? Nope, no discernable differences in externalizing behavior. (To be clear, black teachers rate white students about the same as do white teachers.) In other words, being race matched matters a lot for black students but not for others.
Wright drills down further. First—and this is probably unsurprising—the effect of race matching is entirely due to the evaluations given to black boys. There isn’t a noticeable difference for black girls. Second, the effect of matching is limited to the year of the match. When Wright checked reports of black students when they were assigned to white teachers following a year with a black teacher he found no lingering effects of that year of being race-matched. This suggests that the findings reflect teacher perceptions rather than real behavioral differences since we might expect improvements in behavior to persist the following year—and that’s not what happens.
How suspension rates between black and white students play into race matching
Wright then turns to the question of suspension. As is well known, black students are much more likely to be suspended than are white students. Wright shows that the more times a black student is matched with a black teacher, the less likely that student is to be suspended. Unfortunately, the data does not note the grade in which a suspension happened. It is reasonable to speculate that most suspensions come in later grades and that the finding is due in part to the effect of student-teacher race matching in earlier grades. We can’t be sure of this however, and some part of the finding may also be due to fewer suspensions of black students during years they have black teachers.
The difference in suspension rates is large. Taking these findings at face value, Wright estimates that if we doubled exposure of black students to black teachers, the black-white suspension gap would fall in half. Because of data limitations, it’s not possible to test whether black students’ likelihood of suspension changes when they move from a black teacher to a white teacher. Instead, Wright looks at black students who enter the same school at kindergarten but are exposed to different percentages of black teachers through eighth grade. So the causal interpretations about suspensions are less certain than are the interpretations about behavior reports.
In summary, black teacher perceptions about the behavior of black boys is very different than the perceptions of white teachers. This doesn’t happen for other racial groups. None of this necessarily suggests malice or prejudice or favoritism on anyone’s part. It does suggest one more way that race still matters in our schools.