A new Social Science Research study examines racial differences in how teachers perceive students’ overall literacy skills. It asks whether there are differences in these perceptions and to what extent they might be a reflection of a difference in actual abilities. In other words: Are teacher perceptions accurate?
The study uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, specifically those students enrolled in first grade during spring 2000 who had literacy test scores from kindergarten and first grade (ECLS-K administers a literacy test). Teachers were also asked to evaluate students’ overall ability relative to other first-grade students on a scale that ranges from “far below average” to “far above average.” The analyst controls for a host of student, teacher, and classroom variables in the regression analysis, including parental income and education, teacher race, percentage of poor students in the school, and more.
The study finds that, per the average performers, teachers were mostly accurate in labeling them so; there are no statistically significant racial differences in teacher ratings here. But among lower performers, teachers tend to rate minorities (Asian, non-white Latino, and black students) more positively than their performance suggests, while low-performing white students were rated more negatively than their performance would warrant. More specifically, minorities are 4–6 percent less likely than their similarly performing white peers to be rated “far below average.” Among the higher performers, the reverse is true—meaning whites are rated more positively and minorities more negatively. Specifically, high-performing minority students are between seven and nine percentage points less likely to be rated far above average.
The author—also a sociologist—posits that increased awareness of equity issues may compel teachers to use “restraint” in using labels such as “far below average” when referring to low-achieving minority students. (Or, she says, teachers could be harder on white students who are low-performing if they tend to have higher expectations of white students in general.)
The race-based discrepancies on the high end are quite concerning at a time when all high-achievers, including minorities, tend to get overlooked as teachers focus on their struggling students. But there are implications to this mindset, one of which the author closes with: “If the cognitive abilities of high achieving minority students hold less value in teachers’ overall perceptions, they may also hold less value during decisions concerning academic placements, access to enrichment opportunities, and the distribution of resources and support.” Needless to say, that’s a very big problem.
SOURCE: Yasmiyn Irizarry, “Selling students short: Racial differences in teachers’ evaluations of high, average, and low performing students,” Social Science Research, Vol. 52 (July 2015).