Student Experience Research Network Blog

A recent study by Mindset Scholars David Yeager and Geoff Cohen, along with their colleagues Valerie Purdie-Vaughns and Sophia Yang-Hooper, explores how students’ levels of trust in their schools evolves over time, and examines the impact of ethnic and racial biases on trust.

The researchers surveyed middle school students twice a year for three years. Students answered questions about their level of trust in their school and whether they perceived racial and ethnic biases in their school’s policies and practices. African-American and White students reported similar levels of trust throughout 6th grade. But by the fall of 7th grade, African-American students reported significantly less trust in their schools than their white peers. A separate study with Latino students found similar trends, with Latino students reporting declining levels of trust in their schools relative to their White peers in 7th grade.

Reasons behind the ‘trust gap’
To explore potential reasons for deteriorating levels of trust, the researchers examined school discipline policies and practices. They found that similar to national trends, participating schools showed racial disparities in their discipline practices, with African-American students more likely to be cited for “subjective actions” (e.g., defiance). This suggests that students’ levels of trust may be influenced by biased interactions they observe within their schools and classrooms.

Disparities in disciplinary practices can reinforce a negative cycle, where students who perceive racial and ethnic bias are less likely to trust their schools and become more likely to be disciplined by school staff. Such cycles can have long-term ripple effects. Students who reported a loss of trust in their school by the spring of 7th grade were significantly less likely to enroll in a four-year college than their peers.

Disrupting the cycle
How can schools break this cycle and create environments that promote respect and fairness and, in turn, increase trust? One answer is to look for and eliminate explicit or implicit biases in school discipline. Researchers have tested approaches that increase teachers’ empathy surrounding the causes of student behavior in ways that reduce their use of disciplinary citations.

Another approach is to directly change the messages students perceive from teachers. A brief intervention in this vein tested by the researchers produced promising results. The researchers had teachers provide “wise feedback” to students when grading essays. This “wise feedback” – which conveyed high expectations to the students by including statements such as, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” – disproportionately benefitted African-American students. By providing this intervention in 7th grade, when the trust gap emerged, the gap in discipline referrals between African-American students and their peers was halved. Also, the likelihood of these students enrolling in college was 30 percentage points higher than their African-American peers in the control condition (70% as compared to 40%).

These brief interventions using “wise feedback” demonstrate one way that teachers can help improve students’ level of trust in their schools. A recent reported released by Google, authored by a team including Mindset Scholar Tom Dee, outlines how other teacher-facing programs can positively influence students’ motivation and academic outcomes. Further research should continue to explore ways to foster educational environments that show all students they belong and are valued members of the school community.

For more background on the entire longitudinal study check out this research brief or the following media coverage:

Education Week: When school doesn’t seem fair, students may suffer lasting effects

CNN: What happens when students notice racial bias

Reuters: Preteens who mistrust teachers less likely to reach college

Education Writers Association: Pursuit of college tied to trust of teachers in new study

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