Black Tennessee teachers face racial bias in scoring, new study finds

An analysis found Black and male teachers in Tennessee received lower classroom observation scores than their white and female counterparts every pre-pandemic year since 2012.

Black and male teachers in Tennessee schools are confronted with race and gender-based bias from administrators that may hinder their career success, according to a new study.

Researchers working for the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a Vanderbilt University Peabody College research-practice partnership that examines state-level education policy, released the findings from their analysis on race and gender gaps in the state’s classroom observation scores on Monday.

Black Teacher
(Credit: Adobe Stock)

“We want observation scores to give accurate information about teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom and not to reflect other factors beyond the teachers’ control,” Vanderbilt professor and alliance faculty director Jason A. Grissom said in a statement.

They determined Black teachers and male teachers in Tennessee have received lower classroom observation scores than their white and female counterparts every pre-pandemic academic school year since 2012.

The group’s study concluded that the bias has persisted across “every observation system” and at “every school level.”

“While these gaps in observation scores may seem small, they are large enough to have implications for personnel decisions,” the study authors wrote in their report. “The magnitude of these differences between Black and White teachers could have policy relevance.”

The alliance’s researchers analyzed Tennessee Department of Education data from the last seven pre-pandemic academic school years beginning in the fall of 2011 and ending in the spring of 2019.

A student at a school in Tennessee completes an assignment in this undated photo. (Credit: Tennessee Department of Education)

The report included information about Tennessee educators’ race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as professional characteristics such as work roles held, years of experience, and highest degree earned. The scope of the research also analyzed teacher observation information, according to the report.

The study found racial gaps were larger in schools where Black teachers don’t have many Black colleagues. It also determined Black teachers received lower ratings from white evaluators, including principals and assistant principals.

“Together, these results suggest fewer differences in schools where the teaching faculty and leadership team are more racially diverse,” the study authors concluded.

The study found the observation score disparity persisted even when Black and male teachers have comparable qualifications to their white and female counterparts. The bias even remained when a teacher’s students received similar test scores and other metric outcomes.

The study also determined that the racial makeup of a school’s faculty, different traits of students assigned to Black and white teachers, and the race of the administrator conducting teacher observations all play a role in the observation score disparity between Black and white teachers.

“Even as average scores have increased each year of the evaluation system, white teachers have outscored Black teachers by about one-tenth of a rating point (on a five-point scale) each year,” the study authors wrote.

Researchers said they don’t have many clues about the cause of the male and female observation score gap.

“The gender gap is roughly additive with the racial gap, meaning that white women score, on average approximately 0.30 points higher than Black men, a gap that is roughly constant across all years of the data set,” the study authors determined.

Tennessee Department of Education officials told theGrio on Wednesday that they are aware of the alliance’s study and its findings, but that school administrator observations fall “under the purview of the local school districts and schools.”

“The department offers professional development opportunities and supports to help train evaluators in implementing the observation rubric and will continue to do so in light of this study to support our districts in conducting an impartial and fair observation system,” the state DOE said in an emailed statement.

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