Stanford researchers reveal teachers more likely to label black students ‘troublemakers’

May 7, 2015, 11:52 p.m.

Graduate student of psychology Jason Okonofua recently conducted research on teachers’ tendencies to discipline black students more harshly than white students, concluding that not only are teachers more likely to view black students as being ‘troublemakers,’  they are also more likely to see themselves suspending black students, rather than white students, in the future.

According to Okonofua, he and Jennifer Eberhardt, Associate Professor of Psychology, were motivated to pursue this research because of the lack of empirical evidence surrounding the disparities in discipline of black and white students.

“There was just a lot of speculation about it—that either teachers are racist and biased against students, or that black and Latino students just behave badly and that that’s why we see the disparities,” Okonofua said.

Rather than racism on the part of teachers, or widespread bad behavior from black and Latino students, Okonofua cites implicit bias and what he refers to as the “escalation effect” as the responsible factors for these disparities.

Implicit bias refers to unconsciously held positive or negative beliefs about a person or group, caused by media, conversation, and experiences we are exposed to on a daily basis.

“It’s in the air,” Okonofua said.

It is this unconscious bias against certain groups—black people, women and other marginalized groups—that leads to the “escalation effect.”

The escalation effect occurs when a person detects a pattern that corresponds to existing stereotypes, and then responds to that pattern in an escalated way.  This theory explains how stereotypes persist throughout multiple encounters, such as interactions between teacher and student, or boss and employee.

Okonofua provided an example of how a female employee at a tech firm might fall victim to the escalation effect.

If a this female employee were to turn in a project a day late, and then later make a small mistake in another project, the implicit biases her employer may have about women being ill-suited for jobs in tech causes her boss to detect a pattern in these unrelated incidents and then respond to it in an escalated way—by perhaps disciplining, suspending or firing the woman.

This escalation is also the mechanism by which teachers are more likely to label black students as ‘troublemakers’ than white students—they detect a pattern in unrelated events that they otherwise might not notice in a white student, and are therefore more likely to suspend or expel the black student down the line.

Okonofua says that the effects of these discipline disparities extend beyond the classroom.

“There’s a whole trajectory of how these suspensions and expulsions can lead directly to repeat offenders in the criminal justice system,” Okonofua said.

Okonofua described this “school-to-prison pipeline” by saying that many students who receive disproportionately high numbers of suspensions and expulsions are from at-risk neighborhoods.

When these students are suspended or expelled, they are removed from a conventional learning environment and placed into an environment that is often heavily monitored by police, increasing their likelihood of being stopped and frisked, and potentially arrested.

These experiences lead to an increased likelihood of legal troubles later on in life.

Okonofua also explained how the escalation effect in his research related to police brutality against people of color.

Police may react to these suspended and expelled student with increased force if they repeatedly see them out of school, as they are likely to detect a pattern of their being on the streets and combine it with the well-documented implicit biases of black people as being hostile, dangerous or aggressive.

Okonofua, however, believes that policy interventions, along with psychological and sociological interventions, can offset the effects in the classroom and subsequently prevent the effects down the line.

Okonofua explains that interventions designed to remind teachers of why they became teachers in the first place, that guide teachers through understanding that misbehavior is an opportunity for growth and improvement, could be especially effective.

Okonofua, along with Dr. David Paunesku, Executive Director of Research, and Dr. Gregory Walton, Assistant Professor of Psychology,  designed an intervention with five middle schools across three school districts aimed at providing teachers with the tools to treat infractions as opportunities for growth.

“We actually cut the suspension rate across those five middle schools in half, which is a huge reduction across the social sciences for being about a change in human behavior,” Okonofua said. “A 50 percent change is huge because typically it’s a four or five percent change.”

The research team is currently still working to get this data published.

“I’d like to see more research that looks at multiple encounters so that we can get a better grasp on how stereotyping works in general—how it works in the real world in which there are sustained relationships between people,” Okonofua said.


Contact Allegra McComb at amccomb ‘at’

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