05/14/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Report Digs Into Teachers' Feedback And Finds Bias Towards Minority Students

By: Robyn Gee

When white teachers were asked to give feedback on C-minus level essays, they gave more positive feedback when they believed the student writers were African American or Latino. That's according to a new study by Kent Harber, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University at Newark, that was sponsored by the Spencer Foundation.

Harber calls this phenomenon the positive feedback bias. In administering the study, Harber and his team asked white teachers to leave comments on essays about anything--spelling, grammar, punctuation, ideas, persuasiveness. Then, the teachers completed a special rating form, which they thought would be a private correspondence between them and the student.

“That’s important," said Harber, "because we believe the bias occurs due to white people’s concerns about appearing prejudiced in their own eyes - they want to maintain a self-image of themselves as egalitarian."

So in what scenarios did white teachers show the positive feedback bias?

... In dealing with African American students, when teachers reported feeling less supported by their fellow teachers and school administration.

... In dealing with Latino students, regardless of how supported teachers feel at their school.

Why bring in the ‘teacher support’ factor?

According to Harber, research shows that teachers perform better when they have support from their fellow teachers and administrators. They have less burnout and better pedagogy, he said. In other words, less-biased behavior. 

“Earlier studies have indicated that there’s this self-image threat that was driving the bias....When people are threatened their attention tends to go inward, ‘How do I protect myself’? When people have social support, they are buffered against feelings of threat. They feel more internally robust,” said Harber.

Side-effects of the positive feedback bias

According to Harber, some minority students are aware of the feedback bias, and when they receive praise from a white evaluator, their self-esteem goes down instead of up.

“An interpretation is that they feel this praise is not directed at them as an individual, but at their group membership.They don’t feel like they’re being seen for who they really are. For anybody is a painful thing,” said Harber.

So what can teachers do to avoid being biased?

Advertise that you grade blindly, says Harber. This takes pressure off of you as the teacher, and makes students more open to your feedback.

“I know as a teacher myself, when I started class by telling everybody, ‘Look--I can be a tough grader. I give criticism to people who I think have the capacity to grow from it,’-- making that statement ahead of time normalizes criticism and in a sense puts a positive cast on it,” said Harber. 

Harber’s recommended takeaway

These results should be used to advocate for supportive environments for teachers. “I’m a big believer of teachers. This is a group of people who are largely self-sacrificing and under-valued. It might be about situations that can be affected...It might be better to focus on situations where the bias is likely to occur, rather than the people,” he said.

Can you link the positive feedback bias to the achievement gap?

Many educators and researchers have made the claim that one contributing factor to the achievement gap between white and minority students is that minority students are under-challenged, "Which makes the positive feedback bias a likely suspect," said Harber. "But no one has done a study that directly connects the positive bias to student performance.”

So wait a minute... teachers are actually NICER to minority students? What about the recent federal data showing that black students are three and a half times more likely to get suspended or expelled from school than their white peers?

Harber speculated. “When a student is misbehaving, then they have justified [being punished]. ...There’s a very different kind of drama that occurs when you’re giving feedback to somebody. Here, the spotlight goes back to you. … That causes [teachers] to ask questions about themselves,” he said.

For psych-nerds, the full report is published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

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