When an average Danish school teacher is asked whether they would want include a child with socio-emotional difficulties in their class, they are very likely to say yes if the child is called Anders and no if the child is called Ahmed. This is the result of new research from Aarhus BSS published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory - one of the world’s leading journals in the field of public administration.
In four research studies, Professor Simon Calmar Andersen, centre director at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research, and Thorbjørn Sejr Guul, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and fellow at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research, have demonstrated that Danish school teachers are likely to discriminate students of another ethnicity simply because of the student’s name.
"From a wider perspective, it is interesting to explore whether the same mechanisms exist in other service areas where other front line workers in the public sector with limited information and a heavy workload - such as social workers, police officers and healthcare workers - have to make decisions about citizens."
Thorbjørn Sejr Guul, assistant professor, Department of Political Science and fellow, TrygFondens Center for Child Research, Aarhus BSS
However, the results do not suggest that the teachers are racists, but rather that their workload de facto makes them discriminate, says Thorbjørn Sejr Guul.
“In the survey, we asked Danish schoolteachers whether it was a good idea to include a boy with socio-economic issues in their class. Here they were less likely to say yes if the boy was called Yousef than if he was called Mathias. However, when we asked the same teachers whether it is a good idea to include more children with special needs in classes as such - and not necessarily their own class - it made no difference whether the boy was called Ahmed or Anders. This suggests that the teachers are not racists, but rather that they are concerned with whether or not the boy will increase their workload. This would be the case if he was included in their class, but not if he was included in another class.”
The researchers asked the teachers to indicate on a scale from 1 to 5 whether it would be a good idea to include the fictitious student in their class. For this reason, the researchers are not able to say what proportion of teachers would say no to the student with the Middle Eastern-sounding name in practice.
“However, we were able to observe a shift in attitude and that discrimination took place,” says Guul.
54.4 per cent of the teachers in the study stated that they either “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that it was a good idea to include the boy in their class if he was called Mathias. When the boy was called Yousef, the number dropped to 44.9 per cent. This means that 9.6 more per cent of the teachers agreed to including the boy in their class if he was called Mathias and not Yousef
That the discrimination is caused by workload is further substantiated by two studies in which Simon Calmar Andersen and Thorbjørn Sejr Guul demonstrate that teachers are more than willing to include Ahmed in their class if their workload is reduced. In one study, the teachers were more likely to say yes to Ahmed if they were told they would get additional resources consisting of a co-teacher for eight lessons. In the second study, the discrimination was almost eliminated as the question concerning the teachers’ willingness to admit Mathias or Yousef in their class was posed as part of the final evaluation of another project. In this project, the teachers had been under less pressure of work for some time and had been allocated more Danish lessons in their own class. Thus they had had more time to do the same amount of work and interact with all the students. This is a landmark result, which suggests that the discrimination displayed by the teachers is an unconscious result of pressure of work, Guul explains:
“The teachers’ discrimination disappeared after a period of reduced work pressure despite the fact that they had not been promised additional lessons in the future. This result coheres with other studies that suggest that a heavy workload leads to cognitive pressure. This pressure makes front line workers such as teachers draw on stereotypes in their decision-making.”
Simon Calmar Andersen and Thorbjørn Sejr Guul also reject the notion that teachers discriminate because they - consciously or unconsciously - associate Middle Eastern names with a weak socio-economic background that might also make the students and their families more difficult to work with. In one of the studies, they researchers thus divided the questionnaire on whether or not to include students with difficulties in the teacher’s own class into two. In one half of the questions, Mathias’ and Yousef’s parents were described as unemployed and with social problems. In the other half, the parents were described as well educated and employed. However, this had no effect on the outcome, which supports the idea that the teachers respond to the boy’s ethnicity and the expectation that this will in itself increase their workload. And this is not fair, says Simon Calmar Andersen.
“Although there may be statistical support for the teachers to expect that Admed will result in an increased workload compared to Anders, it is unfair to treat Ahmed any worse than Anders simply because of his name. It is also incompatible with the universal principles of equal treatment of all citizens, which is the founding pillar of our welfare state.”
The researchers cannot say for certain whether the unequal treatment is caused by unconscious bias or statistical discrimination.
“More research is needed for us to establish the cause. The next step will be to explore how we can reorganise the teaching job to make the teachers less likely to discriminate. As our studies show, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of ethnic discrimination by reducing the teachers’ workload. However, it probably makes a difference how this is done. For example, it might well be that additional lessons with a co-teacher will have a stronger effect than a general reduction of the teachers’ working hours. In addition, the solutions need to be sustainable and not simply result in a shift in the norms, where the discrimination is maintained although the workload is reduced because the teachers mentally adapt to the new level,” says Andersen.
The new research results are not just relevant for the field of education. According to the researchers, it makes good sense to conduct similar studies in other parts of the public sector.
“From a wider perspective, it is interesting to explore whether the same mechanisms exist in other service areas where other front line workers in the public sector with limited information and a heavy workload - such as social workers, police officers and healthcare workers - have to make decisions about citizens. If this is the case, our research is simply the first step in the attempt to increase our knowledge of how to structure the public administration in ways that minimise illegitimate discrimination,” says Guul.
Facts about the study:
The results on the discrimination of students with Middle Eastern names are based on four research studies conducted from the autumn of 2012 to the spring of 2014.
1264 teachers participated in the study. They came from 329 schools across the country.
Study 1 was conducted as a survey among 890 Danish school teachers teaching on the 4th to the 6th grade level. In the survey, the teachers were asked about their willingness to include a boy with socio-emotional difficulties in their class. The questionnaires were distributed by lots, so that the boy was called Yousef in half of the questionnaires and Mathias in the other half.
Study 2 is based on a survey conducted among the same 890 teachers. In this survey, the teachers were asked about their willingness to include students with difficulties such as Ahmed/Anders in school in general.
Study 3 is based on a survey among 258 Danish school teachers on the 4th to the 6th grade level. The teachers were divided into three groups by drawing lots and asked about their willingness to include Ahmed, who had socio-economic difficulties, in their class; either without additional resources, with additional resources or with help from their principal to monitor the boy’s academic performance.
Study 4 is based on an experiment in which teachers were allocated more Danish lessons on the 4th to the 6th grade level combined with a survey conducted in connection with the final evaluation of the experiment. In this survey, the teachers were asked about their willingness to include Yousef/Mathias in their class. The study is based on 196 teachers, who were divided into two groups - one with and one without more Danish lessons - by drawing lots.
The research has been co-funded by the Danish Ministry of Education and TrygFonden