Teachers Report Weaker Relationships with Students of Color, Children of Immigrants

The relationship between teachers and students is a critical factor for academic success. However, a new study by NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development finds that teachers report weaker relationships with children of immigrants and adolescents of color.

“Teachers’ relationships are hugely important for all students, but particularly so for groups that are marginalized. Yet, the students who could most benefit from relationships with their teachers are the ones that have the least access to strong teacher-student relationships,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt and author of the study, published online in the American Journal of Education.

Since 2014, public school classrooms have reflected a demographic shift in the United States, with the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students surpassing the number of White students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students of color now make up the majority of students, but inequities between students of different backgrounds have continued to plague the education system.

Existing research highlights the importance of teacher-student relationships on academic indicators such as test scores, classroom engagement, and interest in learning. Teachers not only play a pivotal role in developing students’ knowledge and skills, but can also serve as role models.

But research also presents a mixed view of student-teacher relationships with students of color and immigrant youth. Though these groups of youth may be especially reliant upon their teachers, many also report discriminatory experiences or few interactions with staff.

In the current study, Cherng studied two aspects of teacher-student relationships: whether teachers form equally strong relationships with students from different backgrounds and whether these relationships shape students’ academic expectations for themselves.

Using the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative sample of high school students and their teachers, Cherng analyzed teacher surveys for English and math high school teachers. Relationships were measured three ways: how familiar a teacher reported being with a student, whether the teacher perceived a student to be passive or withdrawn, and engagement in conversation with students outside the classroom. These surveys were linked with academic and demographic data for their students.

For the analysis examining teacher-student personal relationships and later academic outcomes, a measure of student academic expectations was used, which gauged whether a student expected to go to and complete college.

Cherng found that not all groups of students enjoy strong teacher-student relationships; patterns of relationships varied by subject taught, race/ethnicity, and whether students were immigrants, children of immigrants, or third-generation and beyond. For instance, English teachers reported weaker relationships with Asian American students and math teachers with their Latino students compared to third-generation White students.

“Different patterns in student-teacher relationships among English and math teachers suggest that distinct stereotypes may shape relationships,” Cherng said.

In contrast to these patterns of disadvantage, English teachers reported stronger relationships with third-generation Black students compared to third-generation White students. This may reflect teachers’ concerted efforts to close the achievement gap between White and Black students.

The study also highlights the important role of strong teacher-student relationships in fostering student academic expectations: early teacher-student relationships impact later student academic expectations. In other words, teacher-student relationships can inspire students to have high academic ambitions.

“This study demonstrates that teacher-student relationships are a valuable source of social capital in that they help shape students’ academic expectations. However, these relationships are not a resource that is equally available to all students,” Cherng said. “In contrast to the idea that racial discrimination is an intentional disparagement, the findings may reflect a subtler form of racial discrimination: teachers may be unfamiliar with the lives of all of their students, and this lack of knowledge may hinder relationships.”

Cherng notes that the study supports the necessity of rigorous teacher training in cultural awareness in order to overcome biases and improve relationships between teachers and students.

More Veterans Have Enrolled in College with Post-9/11 G.I. Bill

veteran colleg
Capt. Irvin Drummond, U.S. Army, studies at a computer 18 May 2007. (Photo by Chris Sanders, U.S. Army)

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which covers educational costs for veterans beyond tuition, has boosted college enrollment rates among veterans by 3 percentage points compared with the earlier G.I. Bill, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. However, the increase in enrollment was much larger immediately after the bill’s adoption and has waned in recent years.

The study, published online in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a journal of the American Educational Research Association, comes days after Congress passed a major expansion to the G.I. Bill, which – if signed into law – will provide additional educational benefits to veterans.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, helped pay for college and other training for millions of World War II veterans. Since its inception, the G.I. Bill has been updated to continue providing educational benefits, with the most recent expansion being the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, or Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

“The original G.I. Bill not only significantly improved the human capital in the United States after World War II, but also democratized American higher education and created a robust middle class. Education benefits provided by the bill allowed veterans to go back to college and obtain necessary knowledge and skills, while also serving as an important entry point back to civilian life,” said Liang Zhang, the study’s author and a professor of higher education at NYU Steinhardt.

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which took effect in August 2009, offers more generous educational benefits than the previous version of the bill. It covers full tuition and fees at in-state public schools (or up to a set amount for tuition and fees at private institutions), a monthly housing allowance, and up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies. All veterans who have served since September 2001 are eligible for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, meaning that those who did not take advantage of benefits under the previous bill were retroactively eligible.

In this study, Zhang examined the impact of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill – including its monthly housing allowance and stipend to cover miscellaneous educational costs – on veterans’ college participation.

Zhang used 11 years of data (2005 to 2015) from the American Community Survey, which resulted in a sample of approximately 200,000 veterans who have served in the post-9/11 era. This sample enabled a comparison between data from before and after the 2009 adoption of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill in order to determine how veterans might have reacted differently to the bill over time.

Zhang found that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill increased overall college enrollment by about 3 percentage points when compared with enrollment prior to the bill’s adoption. However, the effect was much larger immediately after the bill’s adoption (approximately 4 percentage points) and has waned in recent years (to about 2 percentage points), suggesting that part of the initial enrollment burst was due to the retroactive nature of the bill.

Despite the increase in enrollment, Zhang noted that the effect of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is much smaller than the effects of typical financial aid programs, which have been shown to improve enrollment by about 3 to 6 percentage points for every $1,000 reduction in college costs.

In addition, Zhang examined how the bill affected college enrollment among veterans ranging from 20 to 60 years old, given that veterans typically follow a different educational trajectory than that of nonveterans. He found that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill has had a consistent and positive impact on college enrollment among veterans of all ages, even among older veterans who are usually considered less likely to enroll in college.

“This suggests that older veterans may be more responsive to financial incentives, echoing previous research findings that older students are more responsive to financial aid than younger students,” Zhang said.

Finally, Zhang looked at the levels of existing educational attainment among veterans, since the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill can be used for a variety of educational and training programs, including both undergraduate and graduate education. He found consistent and positive enrollment effects across veterans with all levels of education, with those already holding master’s degrees taking the most advantage of the bill’s educational benefits.

Zhang concluded that it is both important to evaluate the effect of veterans’ programs on college enrollment, as well as to consider the social impact of the bill – which is broader and more profound than any college-related outcomes could possibly measure.

“While providing generous education benefits to veterans could ease the financial burden of going to college, research shows that veterans can face additional challenges associated with service-related injuries and disabilities, as well as being older students. Higher education institutions must continue to better understand and support this growing, yet potentially vulnerable student population, to best serve those who served the country,” said Zhang.

Teacher Racial Bias Matters More for Students of Color

English and math teachers underestimate the academic abilities of students of color, which in turn has an impact on students’ grades and academic expectations, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The study, published online in the journal Social Science Research, builds on existing evidence of how teacher biases in the classroom affect students and adds a new layer of information about students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng

“When teachers underestimate their students’ academic abilities by perceiving that their class is too difficult for students, it matters – but it matters differently for different groups of students,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt and author of the study.

Teachers’ belief in their students’ academic capabilities has long been understood to be a vital ingredient for student success and has been linked to students’ own beliefs in how far they will progress in school, their attitudes toward school, and their academic achievement.

“The process begins with a teacher who expects a student to succeed academically – this belief can shape a teacher’s behavior, such as what assignments are given, body language, and the time a teacher spends with a student. Students respond to these high expectations by internalizing them, which may boost their own academic expectations and performance,” said Cherng.

These teacher perceptions may be especially important for students of color, as a small body of research shows that when teachers have confidence in the academic abilities of students of color, they reap even greater benefits than do their White peers.

Using the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, Cherng analyzed educational, demographic, and survey data from approximately 10,000 high school sophomores and their teachers. He first examined whether teachers have similar perceptions of the academic abilities of students belonging to different racial and ethnic groups after considering factors such as standardized test scores and homework completion.

Cherng then investigated whether teachers underestimating their students’ abilities – the beliefs that students are struggling in class when student test scores are average or higher – is associated with students’ own expectations and GPA. Student expectations were measured by how far high school seniors expected they would go in school – for instance, whether they would graduate from college or earn a graduate degree.

Consistent with stereotypes of race and academic abilities, both math and English teachers were more likely to perceive their class as too difficult for students of color compared to White students, even after controlling for standardized test scores, homework completion, and a host of other factors.

The greatest gap was found for Black students: more than twice the percentage of math (18 percent) and English (13 percent) teachers reported that their class is too difficult, compared to White students (8 percent of math teachers; 6 percent of English teachers). Gaps between Latino and White students were also sizeable (a 6 percent difference). A 4-percent gap between White and Asian American students on English teacher reports aligns with the “Model Minority” stereotype that Asian Americans excel in math but not English.

Teachers underestimating their students’ abilities had an impact on both students’ academic expectations as well as their GPAs.

“Based on my analysis, teachers underestimating their students’ abilities actually causes students to have lower academic expectations of themselves, meaning that they expected they would complete less school. This was particularly harmful among Black students,” Cherng said.

Cherng found a different story when looking at GPAs: while teacher underestimations were linked with lower GPAs, the relationship was weaker for Black students.

“It is possible that Black students anticipate that their teachers think less of them and work harder in class to prove them wrong, hence the less negative effect on their GPAs. Challenging teacher underestimations may be unique to Black students, who have a long history of resisting discrimination within schools,” Cherng said. “Regardless, teacher underestimations are harmful to Black youth.”

Cherng concluded that addressing these biases through better teacher preparation programs or professional development may help eliminate achievement differences and bolster the success of all students.

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