Racial bias hinders college degree attainment

Racial bias hinders college degree attainment
U.S. teachers on average have lower expectations for black students than for white students

October 19, 2017—How powerful are the expectations of high school teachers when it comes to students’ college completion? And do some teachers inadvertently adjust their expectations based on a student’s race? Though anecdotes abound, a unique, just-released study brings evidence to bear on these important questions. In a new article for Education Next, Seth Gershenson of American University and Nicholas Papageorge of Johns Hopkins University report that white teachers, who comprise the vast majority of American educators, on average have far lower expectations for black students than they do for similarly situated white students. And expectations matter—having a teacher who expects a student to complete a four-year college degree increases the likelihood that the student actually goes on to do so.

Gershenson and Papageorge analyzed survey data from the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, which followed a nationally representative sample of about 6,000 students, who were in 10th grade in 2002, through 2012. Gershenson and Papageorge examined data on educational attainment as well as survey results containing multiple teachers’ predictions as to how far in school students were expected to go, such as to finish high school, start college, or earn a degree.

Among the key findings:

Lower expectations for black students. Teachers expect 58 percent of white high school students, but just 37 percent of black high school students, to obtain at least a four-year college degree.

Differing expectations for the same black student. When evaluating the same black student, white teachers were nine percentage points less likely than their black colleagues to expect that student to earn a college degree. This bias was more pronounced for black male students than for black female students (see figure below).

Expectations impact attainment. Having a teacher who is 20 percentage points more confident that a student will complete college increases a student’s chances of completing college by 3 percentage points. This effect is similar in size to those found in evaluations of primary-school inputs’ impacts on postsecondary outcomes, such as being assigned to a teacher who is particularly effective in raising student test scores.

The researchers note that all teachers are overly optimistic about their students’ educational attainment, irrespective of race, but that white students enjoy relatively more positive bias. “Students might perceive and emotionally react to low or high teacher expectations… Teachers with expectations for certain types of students may modify how they teach, evaluate, and advise them,” say Gershenson and Papageorge. “Each of these possibilities creates feedback loops that trigger self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Long term, policymakers can look to mitigate the impact of racial bias through efforts to recruit a more diverse teaching force. As an immediate and low-cost solution, the researchers suggest pre- and in-service training programs for teachers that encourage cross-cultural understanding.

To receive an embargoed copy of “The Power of Teacher Expectations: How Racial Bias Hinders Student Attainment” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at jackie.kerstetter@educationnext.org. The article will be available Tuesday, October 24 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Winter 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on November 17, 2017.

About the Authors: Seth Gershenson is associate professor of public policy at the School of Public Affairs at American University. Nicholas Papageorge is assistant professor of economics at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute, Inc., and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.

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