Our recent study reveals that written teacher comments about students can expose implicit racial, ethnic, and gender biases in school discipline. To uncover these biases, we examined over 3.5 million teacher comments on students from numerous U.S. schools, sourced from student office discipline referrals. These comments, obtained through a web application used by schools, included information about the timing and location of student discipline incidents. Our findings indicate that teachers provided more detailed descriptions of behavior incidents involving Black students than white students, employing more negative emotions and verbs. Conversely, Asian and Hispanic students received fewer comments and less negative language than their white counterparts. Additionally, teachers used more words, negative emotions, verbs, and impersonal pronouns when describing incidents involving boys compared to girls. This research underscores the importance of understanding how written teacher comments vary based on students’ demographic backgrounds.
The significance of this research lies in addressing the disparities in student discipline, particularly concerning race and gender. According to the Office for Civil Rights, Black students constitute nearly 15% of total public student enrollment but account for 30% of in-school suspensions and 38% of out-of-school suspensions in the U.S. Boys also receive a significantly higher number of office discipline referrals than girls, with Black girls more likely to receive referrals than their white counterparts. Such disparities have detrimental short-term and long-term consequences, leading to strained student-teacher relationships and lower academic achievement, and unfortunately, these disparities show no signs of improvement.
Efforts to identify and rectify teacher biases in discipline have faced challenges, particularly when dealing with implicit biases. These biases are subtle and can impact decisions, especially when teachers need to act swiftly, such as sending students to the office. Implicit biases may explain why students of color receive more office discipline referrals than white students, particularly for subjectively defined behaviors like defiance.
Many schools are now adopting equity-focused approaches to address disciplinary disparities, which involve teaching educators to analyze discipline data for patterns and consider student culture. These strategies aim to prevent implicit biases and promote inclusive classroom environments. For instance, educators can use activities like a classroom teaching matrix to help students and themselves understand expectations at school versus at home. The ongoing research is evaluating the impact of these equity-focused approaches on school and student outcomes, with the ultimate goal of preventing disproportionate disciplinary practices and fostering effective, safe, and supportive school environments for all students.