Study: When teachers overcompensate for prejudice

10 May

In Harlem movie and the hard question: Does indigenous African-American culture support academic success? Moi discussed some of the cultural challenges faced by African-American students. People want an education for a variety of reasons. Some have a love of learning. Others want to attend a good college or vocational school. Still others, see an education as a ticket to a good job. Increasingly for schools, the goal is to prepare kids with the skills to attend and succeed at college. In order to give children the skills to succeed, schools need teachers who are effective at educating their population of kids. There are many themes in the attempt to answer the question, what will prepare kids for what comes after high school. What will prepare kids for what comes after high school is a good basic education. The schools that provide a good basic education are relentless about the basics.

If everything works well in a classroom, the children arrive ready to learn and the teacher has deep subject matter knowledge, which is transmitted to the students. The intangibles are how the knowledge is transmitted and what affects knowledge transmission. Research regarding the halo effect may indicate that transmission of knowledge can be affected by student perceptions.

The ‘halo effect’ is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likeable) bleed over into judgments about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly. Because they are often attractive and likeable we naturally assume they are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgment and so on. That is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary. 

John Nisbett and others wrote the original halo effect study Evidence for Unconscious Alterations of Judgments If the goal is to model behaviors and impart skills which allow children the optimum number of life choices, what does modeling a tongue stud represent?

Brian Resnick has written an intriguing article for National Journal, When Teachers Overcompensate for Racial Prejudice:

The performance gap between white and minority students is one of the most persisting problems in American education. Since the 1990s, the performance gap, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has more or less stagnated. While a multitude of factors contribute to the disparity — most glaringly the quality of instruction in poorly funded schools — there are some underlying psychological factors as well.

One widely documented phenomenon is called stereotype threat: When confronted with a racial bias (for example, a suggestion that black students do not perform well on a task), stereotyped students actually don’t do as well compared to control groups. This, in part, explains why black students may not perform as well on high-stakes tests such as the SATs. Some studies have even shown that the threat can diminish short-term memory.

Another psychological roadblock, as outlined in a recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, is a tendency for white teachers to judge minority students’ work less critically than white students’. 

It’s called positive feedback bias, but its effects are largely negative. “There’s nothing wrong with getting positive feedback,” says Kent Harber, lead researcher of the study. But “what happens is that when the feedback is inaccurate, it doesn’t provide a valid fix as to where a student is actually performing. Then they don’t know where they need to best direct their efforts. It’s like having a biased compass.”

Furthermore, the minority students are implicitly aware that this is happening, which increases their distrust of their white teachers and fuels disinterest in schoolwork. 

“When black students get positive feedback from a white, and they believe that the white is aware of their race, not only does their self esteem not get bolstered by the positive feedback — it is actually depressed,” Harber says.

In the study, 126 teachers from the New York metropolitan area were asked to edit essays supposedly written by a black, Latino, or white student. They weren’t told the the student’s racial demographics, but the researchers provided students’ names that hinted at it (Taisha or Jarell for black students, Mark or Molly for white students). The teachers were told their comments would be delivered back to the students. In actuality, there were no students and the essays were assembled to mimic a C-grade level ability.

The researchers found that the teachers were indeed not grading the black and Latino students as critically as the white ones. This trend has been documented before, but the deeper question Harber and his colleagues were trying to answer was the source of the teacher’s motivation. What compelled them to be less critical of minority students?

Political correctness is often seen as an effort to keep up appearances, but Harber’s group found that something different was going on here. The teachers were trying to preserve a self image of being unbiased. The research group came to this conclusion this because the teachers didn’t show bias toward the objective aspects of the essay — the grammar or the spelling — but rather the subjective aspects like ideas and logic. And as the paper states, “criticizing subjective features of writing raises the risk of appearing unfair because there are few established standards to justifying such criticism.”

“There might be multiple causes [for positive feedback bias], but the one that seems particularly potent is a self-image concern, that the whites don’t want to see themselves as prejudiced, independent of how other people see them,” Harber says. “What happens, I believe, is their focus gets distracted from what are the needs of the students to what are ways that I can restore my self image.”

So how can this problem be solved? Harber and his colleagues found that teachers who have greater social support at school are less likely to show a positive feedback bias toward black students. The theory is that teachers with support feel less anxious about their performance and can concentrate on being fair graders.;_ylc=X3oDMTNsMnZqdms3BF9TAzk3NDc2MTc1BGFjdANtYWlsX2NiBGN0A2EEaW50bAN1cwRsYW5nA2VuLVVTBHBrZwNkYWZkODM5NS04YjNkLTM4OTYtYTYyZC1mYzUyNGE0MTRiY2MEc2VjA21pdF9zaGFyZQRzbGsDbWFpbAR0ZXN0Aw–;_ylv=3


Database: PsycARTICLES

[ First Posting ]

Students’ Race and Teachers’ Social Support Affect the Positive Feedback Bias in Public Schools.

Harber, Kent D.; Gorman, Jamie L.; Gengaro, Frank P.; Butisingh, Samantha; Tsang, William; Ouellette, Rebecca

Journal of Educational Psychology, Apr 30 , 2012, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0028110


  1. This research tested whether public school teachers display the positive feedback bias, wherein Whites give more praise and less criticism to minorities than to fellow Whites for equivalent work. It also tested whether teachers lacking in school-based social support (i.e., support from fellow teachers and school administrators) are more likely to display the positive bias and whether the positive feedback bias applies to Latinos as well as to Blacks. White middle school and high school teachers from 2 demographically distinct public school districts gave feedback on a poorly written essay supposedly authored by a Black, Latino, or White student. Teachers in the Black student condition showed the positive bias, but only if they lacked school-based social support. Teachers in the Latino student condition showed the positive bias regardless of school-based support. These results indicate that the positive feedback bias may contribute to the insufficient challenge that undermines minority students’ academic achievement. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)

There are many causes for the disparity in education outcome for many children of color. Along with family situation, low-income status, low-performing schools, and cultural norms, more attention must be paid to the expectation of teachers regarding children who they judge as not likely to succeed.


Who says Black children can’t learn? Some schools get it

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

8 Responses to “Study: When teachers overcompensate for prejudice”


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