Universiteit Leiden

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Kind, clever and hardworking: school reports are not without bias

White girls receive significantly more positive comments from their teachers in their primary school reports than white boys and children from migrant backgrounds. PhD candidate Antoinette Kroes researched subtle biases in different contexts and saw how harmful these can be.

For her research, Kroes looked at the school reports of 247 primary school children. They went to different schools in different cities, so also had different teachers. Kroes coded the teachers’ comments and looked at whether these were positive or negative.

White girls

Overall, all the pupils received more positive than negative comments in their reports. The number of positive comments was highest for white girls. ‘They received comments relatively often such as: “You’re a kind and clever girl” or “You’re really helpful”. For boys, it was more often: “You need to be tidier and take more care over your homework”’, says Kroes. Children from a migrant background received the most negative comments.

‘Negative comments stick with people for decades’

‘One report that has stayed with me was that of a boy from a migrant background. There were negative comments for every subject. The only exception was art, where it said: “Creative. You do make an effort here but could do more.” Even that one positive comment was weakened by something negative. In reactions to my research at presentations and workshops and on social media, I noticed that such comments stick with people for decades.’

Hardworking or hyper

Many teachers are unaware of their bias. Gender bias is often deep-rooted in our society, says Kroes. ‘It’s often thought that girls are hard-working and tidier. Boys tend to be seen as hyper and more likely to misbehave, even if there is no actual difference in their behaviour. With children from a migrant background, the bias can be even stronger, which stands in the way of equal opportunities.’

Gender bias

Subtle gender bias also appears to be prevalent outside of education. In her research, Kroes also looked at parents’ double standards towards their adolescent children. When it comes to kissing and dating, girls are more likely to be seen as a ‘slut’ and boys as a ‘player’. Her research also showed that prolonged media coverage of a sexual abuse case involving young children negatively affected parents’ attitudes toward male babysitters.

‘When we talk about gender inequality, resistance soon arises’

‘There is a strong feeling in our society that emancipation is done, that we’re already there. But when we talk about gender inequality, resistance soon arises. It is difficult to talk about and then bias, sometimes unconscious, can have massively negative consequences’, says Kroes.

‘What is the purpose of school reports at all?’

Kroes has a background in pedagogical sciences and trained as a primary teacher but was never taught how to write reports. In her research, she saw that teachers often give reports their own interpretation: ‘Eighty per cent of the comments weren’t about schoolwork but about behaviour and character. And by far the majority were positive and couched in fairly abstract terms. That doesn’t provide any help with learning. So it also raises the question of what the purpose of school reports is at all.’

Put into practice

Kroes has now moved to Fontys University of Applied Sciences, where she gives workshops that make the teachers of today and tomorrow aware of gender inequality in the classroom. She is also preparing research into the ‘warm transfer’: many primary school teachers discuss their pupils with their new secondary schools to ensure a successful transition from primary to secondary school. But there is a risk of passing on prejudice. ‘I think it’s important to be in contact with people who work in the practice. That’s an inherent part of your work at a university of applied sciences, but I’m glad to see it’s becoming increasingly important at research universities too.’

Text: Tim Senden
Photo: Patrice Börger

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