Education Inequality The Conversation

We Analyzed Over 3.5 Million Written Teacher Comments About Students and Found Racial Bias

A young child writes in a notebook. Photo from Flickr by Ugur Can on November 23, 2019.

By Angus Kittelman, David Markowitz, Kent McIntosh, Maria Reina Santiago-Rosario / The Conversation

Written teacher comments about students can show implicit racial or ethnic and gender biases in school discipline, according to our recent study.

To identify these biases, we analyzed more than 3.5 million teacher comments about students from thousands of schools in the U.S. These comments were written in student office discipline referrals. Teacher comments were gathered from a web application used by schools to provide information such as when and where student discipline referrals occurred. When purchasing the application, schools can provide permission for their de-identified data to be used for research purposes.

Our study showed that teachers wrote more when describing behavior incidents of Black students compared with white students. They also used more negative emotions, words like “anger,” “hurt” and “disrespectful,” and used more verbs, such as “scraped,” “hit” and “spanked.” We found the opposite was true for Asian and Hispanic students compared with white students.

Further, we found that teachers used more words, negative emotions, verbs and impersonal pronouns when describing incidents for boys compared with girls.

Our research shows that written teacher comments about students vary by the students’ demographic backgrounds.

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Research shows that certain types of words provide insights into what people are thinking, feeling and experiencing psychologically. For example, the use of impersonal pronouns, such as “it” and “this,” are terms related to depersonalization and can reflect greater psychological distance from one group to another.

Why it matters

According to the Office for Civil Rights, Black students account for nearly 15% of total public student enrollment but 30% of students suspended in school and 38% of those suspended out of school in the U.S.

Boys also receive substantially more office discipline referrals than girls, and Black girls are more likely to receive office discipline referrals than white girls.

These inequities in student discipline have both short-term and long-term negative consequences, such as poor student-teacher relationships and lower academic achievement. And these inequities are not narrowing.

Strategies for identifying and addressing teacher biases have remained elusive. One reason is that some biases are harder to identify than others. Explicit biases are more overt and can include a teacher making offensive comments based on the race, gender or disability status of their students.

Implicit biases, on the other hand, are more subtle. Implicit biases are more likely to affect decisions when teachers feel the need to act quickly, such as sending students to the office, without considering the consequences of their decisions. For example, implicit bias could explain why students of color receive more office discipline referrals than white students for subjectively defined behaviors, such as defiance, as opposed to stealing or property damage.

What’s next

Many schools are being more proactive about reducing disparities in discipline that removes students from school.

These equity-focused approaches include strategies for teaching educators how to analyze their discipline data for patterns. The strategies also show educators how to better take student culture into account and to stop implicit biases before they occur.

For example, teachers could use activities such as a classroom teaching matrix – or chart – to help students and themselves see the similarities and differences between expectations at school versus at home. Such activities can help educators adapt their classroom expectations to make it easier for students to navigate varying classroom expectations for their behavior.

Research is ongoing to evaluate the effects of these equity-focused approaches on school and student outcomes. Ultimately, we hope these approaches will prevent disproportionate disciplinary practices from occurring and place the focus on designing effective, safe and supportive school environments for all students.

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Angus Kittelman

Angus Kittelman is an assistant professor within the Department of Special Education. His research areas include positive behavioral interventions and supports with an emphasis in high schools, implementation science and systems change, and implementing and evaluating school-based interventions for students with emotional and behavioral problems. In 2023, he was a recipient of the Initial Researcher Award from the Association of Positive Behavior Support (APBS). Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Missouri, he was a research associate within the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Angus received his PhD and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oregon.

David Markowitz

David is an Associate Professor of Communication at Michigan State University. His research examines how language reflects social and psychological dynamics such as deception, persuasion, and status. For example, his recent papers have analyzed how scientists who fake data write their research reports differently than scientists who produce genuine data, and how Academy Awards acceptance speeches reveal social status differences between movie directors and actors.

Kent McIntosh

Kent McIntosh, PhD, is the Philip H. Knight Chair of Special Education at the University of Oregon and Director of Educational and Community Supports, a research unit in the College of Education. His current research focuses on implementation and sustainability of school-based interventions, increasing racial equity in school discipline, and integrated academic and behavior support. He is lead author of over 100 peer reviewed journal articles, presenter of over 50 keynote addresses, and principal or co-investigator of over $70 million in federal grant funding. He is Co-Director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and lead of the Center’s Equity Workgroup, as well as a founding member of the PBIS-SCP Canada Network.

Maria Reina Santiago-Rosario

María Reina Santiago-Rosario is a Research Associate at Educational and Community Supports (ECS), a research unit at the University of Oregon. She conducts research on equity in school discipline practices, culturally responsive classroom management, and supporting students in special education successfully transition from middle–to–high school.

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