U.S. study finds teacher bias in discipline toward black students

(Reuters) - Teachers in the United States were more likely to feel troubled when a black student misbehaved for a second time than when a white student did, highlighting a bias that shows why African-American children are more often disciplined than schoolmates, Stanford University researchers said on Wednesday.

The federal government has found black students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, a disparity experts say contributes to lower academic achievement among African-American students caught in the discipline system.

But the Stanford University team said few experiments have examined the biases among teachers that play a role in disproportionate discipline.

For their study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students”, they gave elementary and secondary school teachers school records describing instances of misbehavior.

The researchers then randomly assigned names to those records, using both names more often given to African-Americans, such as DeShawn and Darnell, and others more often associated with white people, such as Jake.

The study found the teachers exhibited no difference in their emotional response when faced with a pupil who committed a first infraction, regardless of the student’s perceived race.

But when a student believed to be black committed a second infraction, they felt troubled at a level of about five and a half on a scale of one to seven, compared with less than four and a half for students seen as white, it found.

Students perceived as black who committed two infractions were judged by teachers to deserve discipline at a severity level of just over five on a scale of seven, compared with just under four for students seen as white.

“It’s not that these are racist people, it’s just that we all are exposed to stereotypes in the world,” said one of the researchers, Stanford graduate student Jason Okonufua.

In this case, the stereotype was that black students were more often seen as “troublemakers,” the study said.

Teachers union representatives declined to comment.

Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who is not associated with the research, said the study’s methods are sound.

“What they found is, I think, unfortunately not surprising,” Warikoo said. “It really highlights the fact that we see all of these disparities in school, but not a lot of attention is paid to the processes that lead to these disparities.”

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ken Wills