Study shows race, gender affect teachers’ perceptions of students’ ability

A child’s ability to pay attention, follow rules, and other non-cognitive abilities is evaluated differently depending on their ethnicity and gender.
Children of different ethnicities and gender


A child’s approach to learning — whether they pay attention, stay organized, follow rules, work independently, etc. — can shape how teachers’ perceive their academic ability. A new study suggests that these characteristics, called non-cognitive skills, influence teachers’ evaluation of students’ academic aptitude differently depending on a child’s race, ethnicity, and gender.

The study, published in the journal Du Bois Review and co-authored by Yale sociologist Grace Kao, reveals a variety of racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in the association between first-grade students’ non-cognitive skills and their assessed ability in math and reading. For example, the study found that teachers rated black students lower in math skills compared to white students with identical non-cognitive abilities and test scores. 

The bottom line is that even when you control for kids’ math and reading abilities through their test scores, we find that teachers’ perceptions of their students’ non-cognitive and academic skills differ by race, ethnicity, and gender,” said Kao, the IBM Professor of Sociology and chair of the sociology department. “It is especially distressing that these disparities, which have important implications on children’s academic performance, are emerging as early as the start of kindergarten.”  

Kao and co-author Calvin Rashaud Zimmermann, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, based their analyses on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011, a nationally representative sample of children surveyed from the start of kindergarten through fifth grade.

The researchers conducted two analyses using one-dimensional approaches that considered only race/ethnicity or gender. They also employed an intersectional approach that considered race/ethnicity and gender concurrently. The study sought to determine whether teachers’ ratings “penalized” or “advantaged” certain groups through an unequal relationship between children’s non-cognitive skills and teachers’ perceptions of their academic ability.

The one-dimensional studies uncovered several disparities, including the one mentioned above concerning teachers’ ratings of black students’ math skills.

The researchers also found that teachers were more likely to rate black children as below average in math when their non-cognitive skills were below average as compared to their white peers at the same level. This reveals that teachers penalized black students relative to white students exhibiting similar approaches to learning.

The study, which was published on Jan. 24, found that teachers advantage Asian children in comparison to white students in literacy skills. Teachers are more likely to rate Asian students with less-than-exemplary non-cognitive skills as above average in literacy than they are for similarly situated white students, the study showed.

Teachers penalize girls in math and literacy relative to boys with identical non-cognitive skills, researchers found.

The intersectional analysis provides a more nuanced analysis of these disparities by exploring how teachers’ perceptions differ by gender within racial and ethnic groups, the researchers asserted. For example, the study showed that teachers penalize black girls and black boys differently in math. They are more likely to rate black girls as below average in math when their non-cognitive skills are below average relative to those of white students, but they are less likely to rate black boys as above average even when they exhibit exemplary learning behaviors, according to the study.

The researchers also discovered that teachers penalized white and black girls, relative to white boys, in their ratings of math ability, but did not disadvantage Asian and Latino girls in the same manner. The study found that teachers were less likely to rate white girls as above average in math regardless of the strength of their non-cognitive skills.

The finding that teachers’ academic assessments penalize girls relative to boys when considering learning behaviors could seem counterintuitive since scholars widely agree that girls and women outperform men and boys in terms of non-cognitive skills, academic achievement, and academic attainment, the researchers suggested.

Our work indicates that teachers are holding girls and boys of different racial and ethnic groups to different behavioral standards,” said Zimmermann, lead author. “It appears that children’s non-cognitive skills, whether they meet or defy teachers’ expectations, have different effects on teachers’ perceptions of academic ability depending on a child’s race, gender, or ethnicity.” 


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