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Do teachers discriminate against minorities in India?

Education is often cited as a way of “levelling the playing field” for children from disadvantaged minority groups, opening up both social and economic opportunities. But is education itself level? This column provides evidence that Indian schoolteachers may discriminate against minority students.

Education is often cited as a way of “levelling the playing field” for children from disadvantaged minority groups, opening up both social and economic opportunities. However, this role of education is predicated, in part, on the notion that disadvantaged minorities have access to the same educational opportunities as non-minority students. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Schools in low-income neighbourhoods often lack resources and high-quality teachers.

Discrimination in the classroom can further reduce the quality of the education that children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive. Discrimination can take many forms.

  • Teachers may preferentially call on students of particular groups;
  • they may discourage students of certain backgrounds from furthering their education; and
  • they may assign lower grades to minority students who do equivalent work.

If it exists, discrimination can have lasting effects, both reinforcing erroneous beliefs of inferiority (Steele and Aronson 1998; Hoff and Pandey, 2006) and discouraging children from making human capital investments (Mechtenberg, 2008; Taijel, 1970; Arrow 1972; Coate and Loury, 1993).

Measuring discrimination in India

In recent research (Hanna and Linden 2009), we try to provide a mechanism for determining whether discrimination exists in the classroom. In a medium-sized city in India, we recruited about 70 children to participate in an exam tournament. We told the children that the highest-scoring child would receive a large monetary prize — a little more than half of the parents’ average monthly income.

We then recruited 120 local teachers to grade the exam. Each of the teachers graded about 25 exams, so each exam was graded about 40 times. Every exam given to the teachers was accompanied by a cover sheet providing demographic information about a particular child: name, gender, age, and minority status.

To measure bias, we randomly assigned the characteristics on each cover sheet rather than providing the actual characteristics of the child who took the exam. As a result, the characteristics attached to each exam were not at all related to the actual child who took that particular exam. We expected that if teachers were not discriminating in exam grading, we would see no difference in grades for a given test due to the assignment of demographic characteristics. On the other hand, if teachers were discriminating, we expected to see lower scores on exams that were assigned to be from minority children relative to those assigned to be from non-minority children.

Teachers discriminate in grading

We found that teachers were, in fact, discriminating, though not overwhelmingly. Exam scores were, on average, 2.5% lower when teachers thought they were grading minority children. Teachers discriminated the most against minority children who had objectively lower-quality exams. Out of those with low-quality exams, minority children were scored 3.3% lower than non-minority children for the same quality work. The sizes of these effects are small, relative to the actual gap between minority and non-minority children on the exam. Yet if teachers discriminate along this subtle dimension, they may discriminate along other dimensions as well.

Several policy questions arise naturally from these findings. Under what circumstances do teachers discriminate? Would hiring more minority teachers reduce discrimination? Would hiring better-qualified teachers reduce discrimination? We collected additional data to try to answer these questions.

  • First, we found that teachers tended to discriminate more at the start of the grading exercise.

This, presumably, is when they were more unfamiliar with the exam questions and needed to try to guess at what was the right level of partial credit to assign to an exam answer. This suggests that programs that train teachers to feel more confident and comfortable with the classroom material may help alleviate discrimination in the classroom.

  • Second, most of the discrimination came from minority teachers themselves.

This suggests that minority teachers may be internalising particular beliefs about their own minority groups, or that they are penalising low-performing minority students who fulfil existing stereotypes.

  • Finally, we might posit that more highly-educated teachers are more aware of and more tolerable of diversity.

However, we did not find any significant differences between teachers with and without a master’s degree.

What this means in terms of policy

Teachers discriminated against minority students in the grading of exams, but the results were modest. It is important to note that our study only facilitates reflection on one element of discrimination within the classroom. Other, more blatant types of discrimination may exist in the classroom as well. If we hope that education can help “level the playing field,” further work needs to be done to understand how to improve the treatment of minority students in the classroom.


Arrow, Kenneth (1972) “Models of Job Discrimination,” in A. H. Pascal, ed. Racial Discrimination in Economic Life. Lexington, MA: D. C. Health, 83-102.

Coate, Steven and Glenn Loury (1993) “Will Affirmative Action Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?American Economic Review. 83(5): 1220-1240.

Hoff, Karla and Priyanka Pandey (2006) “Discrimination, Social Identity, and Durable Inequalities,” American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings. 96(2): 206-211.

Mechtenberg, Lydia (2008) “Cheap Talk in the Classroom: How Biased Grading at School Explains Gender Differences in Achievements, Career Choices, and Wages,” Forthcoming Review of Economic Studies.

Steele, Claude and Joshua Aronson (1998) “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 69(5): 797- 811.

Taijel, Henri (1970) “Experiments in Inter-Group Discrimination,” Scientific American. 223(5): 96-102.

Hanna, Rema and Leigh Linden (2009). Measuring Discrimination in Education, NBER Working Paper No. 15057. June 2009


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