Study Finds White Teachers of Black Students More Likely to Punish Students for Misbehavior

A new study led by Dan Battey, an associate professor of mathematics education in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has found that White teachers in majority-Black classrooms have more negative, highly charged interactions with students regarding classroom behavior than White teachers in predominately White classrooms and Black teachers in predominately Black classrooms.

For the study, the research team compared student-teacher interactions from 25  middle school math classrooms with three different settings: a White teacher with mostly White students, a Black teacher with mostly Black students, and a White teacher with mostly Black students. The researches analyzed four videos of each teacher giving different lessons and examined the ways the teachers spoke to students and the kinds of classroom environments they created.

The results found that all teachers, regardless of race, more often reprimanded students than praised them. However, White teachers of Black students admonished students for misbehavior two to four times as frequently as teachers who were the same race as their students. Additionally, White teachers of Black students were more likely to have highly charged interactions with students instead of privately pulling students aside to have a conversation.

Black students who received this negative feedback performed worse than they had in the previous school year. One standard deviation increase in the number of negative interactions around behavior was associated with a 16 percent decrease in Black students’ achievement. Additionally, Black teachers were more likely to praise Black students’ capabilities than White teachers. The positive reinforcement was correlated with higher Black student achievement.

The researchers believe that their results show the need for White educators to be more reflective about their practice in majority-Black classrooms. The researchers suggest that teachers should handle behavior problems privately and respectively instead of yelling or removing students from the classroom. Additionally, the researchers suggest that White teachers be more intentional about finding moments to praise Black students on their abilities.

The study, “Racial (Mis)Match in Middle School Mathematics Classrooms: Relational Interactions as a Racialized Mechanism,” was published in a recent issue of the Harvard Educational Review. It may be accessed here.

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  1. This study serves to confirm some of the contributing factors to disproportionate discipline in schools. As a trainer and consultant in the field of Restorative Practices in Schools (Restorative Solutions, Inc.) we see this evidence in virtually all of the schools and Districts with which we work. Implementation of Restorative Practices with fidelity has shown to decrease discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions overall. However, there is limited evidence to demonstrate the field’s impact on disproportionate discipline. This points to the need for a more deliberate focus on, and training around bias, cultural relevancy including implicit bias, and trauma-informed care.

  2. This is an ancient practice. White teachers have been using the classrooms to criminalize black students, and black males in particular, since the days of Brown vs The Board of Education.

  3. It is nice to see what appears to be a mixed methods study that confirms what other research has found; bias in education operates interactionally and discursively in classrooms as well as structurally through mechanisms such as tracking. Congratulations to the investigators on this work.

  4. Excellent article and findings Doc! I am geared towards equity and social justice to African Americans and really interested in authors and mentors in that area.

  5. […] Researchers also have shown that Black teachers have higher expectations for Black students and are more likely to recommend them to programs for gifted students. Conversely, white teachers may be more likely to have negative attitudes toward Black students and more likely to refer them for discipline. […]

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