Classroom Observations Biased Against Male, Black Teachers, Research Suggests

Recently in The 74, Kevin Mahnken reviewed a study out of Tennessee that shows that classroom observations, utilized for teacher effectiveness determinations, show evidence of racial and gender bias against male and Black teachers. Excerpts of the piece appear below:

Significant bias has contributed to lower classroom observation scores for thousands of teachers in Tennessee over the last decade, a study published in late December found. Even when controlling for differences in professional qualification and student testing performance, male and African American teachers were rated lower than their female and white colleagues.

The paper is one of the first thorough examinations of classroom observation — the common method of using an evaluator, such as a school principal, to watch and rate a teacher’s work with pupils — across an entire state. Its findings may cast doubt on the efficacy and fairness of the practice not only in Tennessee, but also the huge number of states that also place the in-person reviews at the heart of their federally mandated teacher evaluation systems.

Study co-author Jason Grissom, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University, said that distortions in teacher evaluations — which were especially large in observations of male instructors relative to females — held significant sway over decisions on retention, firing, and promotion. Biased scores could undermine states’ ability to raise teacher performance and offer a better education to students, he added. 

The study, conducted by Grissom and University of Virginia professor Brendan Bartanen, focused on Tennessee as an example of an evaluation framework that has long since reached maturity, with standards-based performance rubrics and observers who are trained to follow specific procedures in rating teachers. 

Across all years, male teachers scored approximately .18 points lower than females on average on the 1–5 scale, while African Americans scored approximately .09 points lower than whites. Black male teachers, faced with two possible sources of bias, were the lowest-scoring group, rated about half of a standard deviation lower than their white female counterparts, the highest-scoring. Black women scored slightly higher than white men. While ratings for all groups crept upward over time, gaps between categories remained roughly the same throughout.

The results somewhat echo those of earlier research focusing on the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, a teacher evaluation initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In that study, two groups of teachers were more likely to be graded lower on a set of low-stakes classroom observations: men, and those who worked in classrooms with higher concentrations of low-performing students and students of color. A 2013 paper authored by researchers at Brown University also found that low-achieving students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to non-white and novice teachers.

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