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Teachers view student behavior differently based on race, NC State research suggests

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Is that child in class trying to hurt others or obliviously running around? Their teacher’s judgment might be based on their race.

In a study published last week, N.C. State University researchers showed that prospective teachers were worse at recognizing emotions on black faces than on white faces. The undergraduates also mislabeled more black faces as ‘angry’ and thought misbehaving black boys showed more hostility than misbehaving white boys.

“Black-white inequality in school performance and discipline is a major problem in the U.S.,” said Adam Gamoran, President of the William T Grant Foundation, which will fund a follow-up study. “Psychologists are trying to find out why that is and what we can do about it.”

Although just 24 percent of Wake County students are black, they made up 55 percent of out-of-school suspensions in 2015. They also had longer suspensions. Black students missed 65 percent of the over 63,000 suspended class days. White students, who made up 19 percent of those suspensions, accounted for only 13% of the missed days. Implicit bias may be part of the problem.

“Sometimes people interpret that as there’s a whole lot of prejudiced people out there and this doesn’t apply to me,” said Karen Phelan Kozlowski, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, who was not involved in the study. “But implicit bias sits beneath our consciousness. It’s festering all the time because we live in a society shaped by cultural messages about race. It’s impossible for us to escape those messages.”

Even when people recognize problems because of implicit bias, solutions can be scarce. So the researchers want to understand how the bias manifests.

“Many of us know we have implicit bias, but we don’t know what to do about it,” said N.C. State professor Amy Halberstadt, lead author of the study. “This study shows a pathway by which implicit bias works out.”

Hostile or docile?

The more we understand how implicit bias happens, the better we can intervene.

“For example, we can say ‘I’m wondering if I’m hearing anger in your voice or if I’m misinterpreting that.’ Be aware that you might be missing the emotional experience of somebody else,” Halberstadt said.

The researchers split videos of 20 actors demonstrating emotions such as anger and surprise into five clips, so a neutral face would be the first clip and an almost exaggerated face would be last. Study participants watched the clips and guessed the emotions.

They were 1.5 times more likely to accurately identify emotions of white adults than of black adults, and three times more likely to say a black expression was angry when it wasn’t. Past studies have shown the same results, but only for black men and excluding women.

“Some of our team were excited when we found this out, because it verified their experience of being told ‘why are you so angry’ when they were walking around happily and not angry at all,” Halberstadt said. “It verified that it wasn’t what they were doing wrong; it happened in the eyes of the beholder.”

Next the participants watched four videos of misbehaving boys in a classroom. One black boy steps on a child’s artwork, and another says a rude comment after a child’s presentation. A white boy walks off with a child’s video game, and another throws a child’s artwork in the trash. The participants rated how hostile they thought the four boys were.

On a scale from one to five, on average the black boys rated 3.37 and the white boys rated 2.12.

If you think someone is acting hostile, you may act defensive. So if a teacher misidentifies an antsy student as angry, they could mete out harsher punishments.

“It’s important to know that we may be more harshly judging some kinds of kids over other kids,” Halberstadt said. “We don’t have the same rules for every child. Taking a breath and noticing if we’re being equitable in our discipline is very important.”

After the preliminaries

This preliminary study used a small sample of 40 prospective teachers. The next one will include more participants from three universities and real-life teachers. The researchers hope it will confirm conclusions about emotional recognition.

“We often think about teacher expectations or observable behaviors for how they impact students later, but we don’t often focus on the subtle emotion work,” Kozlowski, the professor not involved with the study, said. ”It’s really hard to capture that subtle glance or that little eye roll.

“[This study] talks about how teachers are processing emotions. It’s an important step in understanding how inequality reproduces in the classroom.”

Though Wake County teachers go through diversity training, Leesville Road High School social studies teacher Angie Scioli said they don’t get effective implicit bias training. Starbucks across the nation closed on May 29 for implicit bias training after police were called on two black men in a Philadelphia store. Many police departments have taken part in similar programs.

“I see other public servants and professions engaging in that type of training,” Scioli said. “I feel like it would be equally important if not more important that teachers also have that opportunity, given our role in child development.

“It will be an important part of teacher training going forward to help teachers identify how much they hold implicit bias and thoughtfully consider the way they react in their classroom.”

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