racism and schools

Students love to complain about women and people of colour – their teachers. Here’s what happens next.

Any minute, your university students will get an email with a link. That link leads to one of the most dire tools of university performance, the evaluations of course content  and teaching quality.

These evaluations are meant to provide feedback to enhance course design and teaching methods. However, for several decades research has shown that despite the questions being asked, the factors influencing students’ responses have a minimal amount to do with either the course or teaching quality. 

They are instead shaped by student demographics, prejudice towards the teaching academic, and biases shaped by the classroom and university setting.

Despite the clear flaws underpinning the data student evaluations collect, universities continue to use this data as a measure of an academic’s teaching performance. Evaluation results influence an academic’s likelihood of being hired on a continuing basis for contract and sessional staff, receiving promotions for existing staff, and being fired or managed out during staff restructures.

This is a flawed method of evaluating people and it raises questions of why the sector continues to use student evaluations. But the negative impact is complicated further by the fact that we know evaluations impact on different groups of academics to different degrees. The groups impacted the most are the groups the academy declares to value, hopes to protect, and claims to have an interest in fostering their careers.

I recently completed a study where I reviewed the findings of existing research about student evaluations of courses and teaching. The paper, Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching, found that across studies covering more than 1,000,000 student evaluations, it is clear that women are at a disadvantage compared to men.

Different studies suggest the disadvantage can vary in size, and is highly dependent on disciplinary area, student demographics and other factors, but across the board, women are judged more harshly than men. At the extreme, this means women are more likely to fail evaluations than men, and researchers have routinely cited examples of more capable and higher performing women receiving lower scores than their less capable male counterparts. These results predictably mean women fare worse in job applications and promotions, and has been cited as a reason why women are represented less in the professoriate, and fill fewer leadership positions.

The same is true of factors such as race, gender, sexual identity, disability, language and other marginalising characteristics. Studies in different locations across more than two decades of solid research continually find that if an academic is not a white, English speaking, male in the approximately 35-50 year old age group and who students perceive to be able-bodied and heterosexual, this will result in some form of lower evaluation result. The negative repercussions of these results are also cumulative; a woman will receive lower results, and a person with a visible disability will receive lower, so a woman with a visible disability is likely to be treated extra harshly in the evaluations of her course and teaching.

What also cannot be ignored is that as a majority of the existing data originates from large-scale quantitative surveys, repeatedly researchers have noted that the rates of people within the sector who are disabled, identify as LGBTIQA+, people of colour, are refugees or immigrants, or a part of other marginalised groups are so underrepresented in the higher education sector that they do not count as a valid sample size.

At the broadest level, multiple studies showed that evaluation results can be impacted by disciplinary area and assessment type. Several studies have shown that academics in the sciences and associated fields receive lower evaluation results than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences. Similarly, it has been noted that academics whose courses use essays and presentations for assessment fare better than those who rely on exams.

Institutional factors that have nothing to do with the class, or the academic teaching the class, have also been cited as reasons an academic will receive a lower evaluation score. Lower results can be given because of the class scheduling, class location, classroom design, class cleanliness, library facilities, and even the food options available on campus; all factors beyond the control of the academic teaching the class.

Official university responses to why they continue to carry out student evaluations when evaluations are so flawed and prejudiced towards the sector’s most vulnerable groups are rare. Existing studies suggest universities need data about course content, teaching quality, and student satisfaction, and student evaluations are the most cost and time effective method of gaining this information. In the past, perhaps the lack of data around evaluations was enough to convince institutions that a method of data collection that was seemingly not perfect was still acceptable due to the data that could be obtained rather quickly and easily. 

Considering what we know in 2021, time and cost effectiveness are not good enough reasons to continue a flawed practice that so blatantly discriminates against the sector’s women and those from marginalised groups.

Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research examines higher education administration and policy with a particular focus on investigating the inequities that persist in the sector.

Racism in Australian schools: here’s new research that can help your school deal with it

Most Australians think multiculturalism is good for Australia and only a very small percentage believe racism is a problem. According to the 2015 Scanlon Report 86% of Australians think multiculturalism has been good for Australia while only 1.5% think racism is a problem.

Yet, if we are to believe recent news reports, race hate among school students in Australia is on the rise, particularly through social media and on-line. Certainly around 70% of Australian school students have experienced some form of racism, ranging from verbal comments to violence, and 67% of these incidents have been at school.

So who do young people believe is responsible for racism?

We examined this issue in focus groups with Year 7-10 high school students as part of larger research project Doing Diversity: Intercultural Understanding in primary and secondary schools.

Almost all students said they’d been ‘taught to accept’ that Australia is a ‘very multicultural society’ and that ‘we’re all alike, yet we’re different’. All children said they were anti-racist and that racism ‘just shouldn’t happen, it’s disgusting’.

Nevertheless, students also said that racism was a problem in Australia. They attributed responsibility for racism to one of five factors.

  1. Racism is normal. Racism is a ‘fact of nature’, a universal characteristic of all humans, and ‘inevitable’. Attributing responsibility for racism in this way removes it from the possibility of human intervention: ‘you can’t control it; ‘you can’t stop it’; ‘you can’t get away from it’. For these children, it didn’t matter what teachers or schools did, stopping racism was ‘not going to happen’.
  2. It’s the racist bully. The idea that one type of individual, the racist bully, is responsible for racism is widely promoted in anti-bullying and anti-racism programs in Australia and internationally. Assigning all responsibility for racism to the ‘racist bully’, however, removes the responsibility of others to recogniseand reform how their own attitudes and behaviours contribute to racism. For example, through subtle acts of exclusion, as bystanders who ignore racist incidents, or through social practices and structures that discriminate and disadvantage different ethnic and cultural groups.
  3. It’s ethnic minorities who don’t assimilate. Ethnic minorities who fail to adopt national social and cultural norms were seen to be responsible for racist behaviour. It is okay to maintain language and ‘other multicultural stuff’ (food, dress, dances) but practices that were unfamiliar and foreign to the social majority should be abandoned (such as the burka and polygamy). This was because ‘if you’re going to come to Australia…you’re going to have to follow, kind of, our way’. Ethnic groups that did not modify their own behaviour were responsible for any racism that resulted from failing to comply.
  4. Whites are the real victims. Students insisted that racism is ‘not a good thing’ but denied any individual or collective responsibility for racism by the ‘white culture’. The argument is that whites are the real victims of racism because most accusations of racism were untrue or unreasonable, and this put an unfair burden on whites to alter their behaviour to avoid allegations of racism. This inverted racism attributes responsibility to the historical victims of racism.
  5. We’re all responsible. Racism is seen as a mutual responsibility for everyone. Students used humourous, racialised nicknames as an example. It was OK, they said, to call a Greek-Australian friend ‘Souvlaki’ and an Indian friend ‘Curry’ because this was an accepted, cultural practice in Australia: ‘that’s just how we live today, like, in our society’. But everyone was responsible for ensuring that their jokes were ‘funny’ and did not cause ‘hurt’ for managing their responses: ‘it only hurts if you let it…you’ve got to not let it get to you’. In short, this view attributed all individuals with equal responsibility for managing their attitudes, behaviours and responses to prevent racism.

Australia is a nation of immigrants. Ensuring that it is also a tolerant nation means that we have to help future generations in our schools view racism as an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Our research can be of use to Australian schools and school systems as they help create a genuinely anti-racist, multicultural nation.


ChrisHalseProfessor Christine Halse is Chair in Education, School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Education at Deakin University. Christine was President of the Australian Association for Research in Education from 2011 to 2012. Her research interests include Sociology of Education, Social and Cultural effects of curriculum and policy, Doctoral Education, and Ethics in Research and Education Practice.

 This blog is based on an article published in Discourse: Cultural Studies in the Politics of Education as part of special issue on Responsibility and Responbilisation, edited by Christine Halse, Catherine Hartung and Jan Wright.

Christine Halse is presenting at the at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week.