Racial inequity in teacher evaluation leads to racial inequity in education

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This is an oversimplification but it is true and part of the problem: There is a great deal of racial inequity in our school system. Put another way, kids of color get screwed over by our school system. One way to help with this is to increase diversity in the teaching and administrative staff of schools. However, the pipeline of incoming teachers and administrators is very white. Why? There are a number of reasons, and probably a lot of unknown unknowns. But one factor is bias against teachers of color. We see this bias all the time. A friend of mine called me up two years ago about this. Have you heard anything about Mr. X (a particular teacher in our school)? No, I haven’t, I said. I’ve heard from five people that he is a bad teacher, but my kid is in his class now and he is hands down the best teacher she has had. I wonder why people say that, I asked. I was wondering, she said, if it is because he’s black. He’s the only black teacher in the school. Were those parents complaining about him white? Ya. OK then.

Anecdotes are not evidence. But put together enough anecdotes and you get culture.

Anyhow, a recent study demonstrates that Black teachers might be discriminated against through a Catch-22 effect, whereby variation in performance across teachers is context dependent in a way that privileges White teachers and screws over Black teachers. The study is here. The abstract of the study says:

“Racial gaps in teacher performance ratings have emerged nationwide across newly implemented educator evaluation systems. Using Chicago Public Schools data, we quantify the magnitude of the race gap in teachers’ classroom observation scores, examine its determinants, and describe the potential implications for teacher diversity. Between-school differences explain most of the race gap and within-school classroom-level differences—poverty, incoming achievement, and prior-year misconduct of a teacher’s students—explain the remainder of the race gap. Teachers’ value-added scores explain none of the race gap. Leveraging within-teacher variation in the teacher–evaluator race match, we find that racial mismatch does not influence observation scores. Adjusting observation scores for classroom and school context will generate more equitable ratings of teacher performance and mitigate potential adverse consequences for teacher diversity.”

The press release includes this quote from one of the study’s authors:

“Our findings indicate that these classroom observation scores do not equitably compare the performance of teachers who taught in very different classroom and school settings,” said Steinberg, an associate professor of education policy at George Mason University. “The race gap in teacher scores does not reflect real differences in teacher performance.”

“Left unadjusted, these scores may lead to disproportionate and incorrect identification of Black teachers for remediation and dismissal, and may have serious implications for the diversity of the teacher workforce,” Steinberg said. “Our study, which focused on Chicago, raises questions about how classroom observation scores are being analyzed and used by school leaders across the United States. School leaders everywhere need to account for the potential impact of school and classroom factors on teacher scores.”

This picture shows two really important things. Frse, these bell curves overlap enough to tell us that small biases could make the difference. That’s the one on the upper left. Then the other graphs show how when we consider all the factors, the distribution of scores showing “racial” differences are explained by other factors.

This next picture shows the different factors found to explain differences in scores sorted by “race.” Note that the teacher is not a cause of the explainable variation, statistically.

There is a lot more than that in this paper, but that’s the basic idea.


Steinberg, Matthew and Lauren Sartain. 2020. What Explains the Race Gap in Teacher Performance Ratings? Evidence From Chicago Public Schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

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