Students of color who perceive biased treatment from middle school teachers may be less likely to attend college than if they trusted instructors to treat them fairly, a small study suggests.
“We don’t think the discrimination and bias, by itself, had this effect,” said lead study author David Yeager, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and co-chair of the Mindset Scholars Network at Stanford University in California.
“Instead, we think these experiences made students disengage from the system,” Yeager added by email. “Once you’re disengaged, you do worse, you get lower grades, you’re more likely to get in trouble, and so on, and once kids have low grades or high absences, they’re just less likely to go on and get higher SAT scores and eventually make it to college.”
In a time of increased concern about how minorities are treated by police, teachers and other authorities, it is critical to examine whether students of color have experiences in school that lead to mistrust of authorities and what the long-term implications are for young people, Yeager and colleagues write in the journal Child Development.
Minority youth perceived and experienced more biased treatment and lost more trust over the middle school years than their white peers, researchers found. Minority students’ growing lack of trust in turn predicted whether they acted out in school and whether they made it to college years later.
The analysis included 277 black and white students at one school in the northeast U.S. and a second group of 206 white and Latino students from Colorado. The first group was followed though college entry, but the second group was not.
Researchers assessed trust by asking the students to complete surveys that featured questions like “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school” and “If a black or white student is alone in the hallway during class time, which one would a teacher ask for a hall pass?”
With the first group, black students reported more bias in school discipline decisions, and school records in fact showed that only minorities were disciplined for “defiance” and “disobedience.”
As middle school progressed, black students became more aware of this bias and less trustful of school authorities, the study found. Even students who never had discipline issues before became more likely to experience these problems once they lost trust in teachers and other school authorities.
Researchers found a similar pattern among the Latino and white students in the second group, with distrust increasing for students of color as middle school progressed.
Within the first group of kids, however, researchers tested a pilot project that randomly selected 88 seventh grade social studies students to be singled out for special encouragement. These kids got a hand-written note on an essay encouraging them to meet a higher standard and implying the teacher believed they had the ability to do this.
This note made no difference for white students. But black students who received the note had fewer disciplinary incidents and were more likely to be enrolled in college six years later.
While the study is small, and a one-time note for a few kids doesn’t prove what interventions can improve college attendance among students of color, the findings suggest it’s possible to create an environment of trust even for students who contend with discrimination, the authors conclude.
“It is highly likely that students of color experience injustice based on race in the community as well as in school,” said Dr. Caroline Kistin, a pediatrics researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.
“In some ways, this makes the intervention in school even more important,” Kistin added by email. “It might help to buffer the discrimination that students face elsewhere.”