Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Pursuit of College Tied to Trust of Teachers in New Study

The level of trust that middle school students of color have for their teachers could have long-term impacts on whether or not they enroll in college, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development.

Through multi-year surveys in the Northeast and a year-long study of students in rural Colorado, researchers determined that black and Latino students who felt that their teachers were not impartial in their discipline practices were less likely to seek on-time enrollment in a four-year institution after high school — even if they made good grades. 

“When students have lost trust, they may be deprived of the benefits of engaging with an institution, such as positive relationships and access to resources and opportunities for advancement,” UT Austin Professor David Yeager, lead author on the study, said in a news release. “Thus, minority youth may be twice harmed by institutional injustices.”

Researchers also examined school records, which showed that black students were disciplined more throughout middle school, with the largest race gap at the sixth-grade level. In incidents identified as defiance or disobedience, black students outnumbered white students nearly 3-to-1.

Federal civil rights data, as well as other research, has shown that students of color are suspended and expelled from school at disproportionate rates. Studies have also found that white teachers often have lower expectations for their students of color, even as early as preschool. And black and Latino children are more likely to be passed over for gifted education programs and face other inequities during their K-12 education, such as less access to advanced-level courses.

People generally place trust in an institution they perceive — whether by personal experience or observation — to be “procedurally just,” or using fair processes in decision-making and having personal regard for the individuals it serves, researchers write in the report. For this study, surveyed students’ perceptions were measured by their reactions to statements such as “I am treated fairly by my teachers and other adults at my school.”

While students’ trust decreased across the board between sixth and eighth grade, it declined faster among black and Latino students than their white peers.

When students’ trust in school declined, the rate of college enrollment was about 43 percent for black students, compared to 54 percent for whites, Yeager told CNN. When their trust increased, the college-going rate increased to 64 percent for black students and 62 percent for whites. 

As part of their study, researchers experimented with a “wise feedback” intervention involving handwritten notes from teachers on seventh-grade students’ essays. One version of the note read, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper,” and the other stated, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

The notes were randomly assigned to students, and the black students who received the more detailed explanation were more likely to revise their essays and improve the quality. Those students also had lower discipline rates in eighth grade, as well as higher college outcomes. 

Study co-author Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University explained to CNN that things that happen to people during their teenage years end up sticking with them — the reason why a disproportionate number of memories come out of that stage of life.

“There’s this kind of hidden construct of trust that teachers and schools are influencing all the time and maybe not knowing it,” he said, “and they have these far-off, far-flung consequences, like college enrollment.”