Teachers Like You Like You: How Finding Common Ground Could Help Close the Achievement Gap

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

We like people like ourselves. Scientists call it the homophily principle, which states that like birds, people tend to flock with others who look and think and act like themselves. More often than not we do this according the easiest similarities to recognize like race, age, occupation, education, and gender (and roughly in that order, too). There’s good reason to be concerned about the homogeneity this can lead to, but research also shows we form deeper, more trusting relationships with people we perceive to be like us.

This got psychologist Hunter Gehlbach thinking: since good student-teacher relationships are critical to academic success, could schools leverage our tendency towards homophily to improve student achievement?

After all, it’s not just gender or generational identities that draw us together. Researchers have documented a host of smaller and sometimes bizarre ways we show our preference for people like us. There are studies reporting we’re more cooperative with people we’re told have the same birthday or similar looking fingerprints as us. Another study found people are drawn to places and professions that sound like their names—this is why there are a disproportionate number of people named Louis living in St. Louis and Denise’s working as dentists.

To put his hypothesis to the test, Gehlbach and his colleagues at Harvard, Stanford, and Merrimack designed an intervention aimed at helping teachers and students find out what they have in common. While previous experiments have used made-up similarities to improve things like cooperation (as with the fingerprints), Gehlbach’s intervention is the first that he knows of to leverage real similarities to affect real-life outcomes. Their study, which will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, suggest it worked.

With persistent disparities in education outcomes across the country for low-income and minority students, an intervention that takes about an hour to complete and can help close the gap this much could be a really big deal.

Early in the school year, before teachers and students had gotten to know one another, Gehlbach and his colleagues traveled to a large suburban public high school in the southwest, where they asked a group of 315 ninth-graders and their 25 teachers to fill out surveys with questions about their values and interests. They asked them things like what they thought the most important quality in a friend was and what they would do if the principal announced they had a day off. Then, out of these 28 questions, Gehlbach and his colleagues found five items each student had in common with his or her teacher.

Next, they told half the students what they had in common with their teachers, while the other half learned about five things they had in common with students at another school. Likewise, teachers only learned about what they had in common with half of their students and were told nothing about the others (researchers said they didn’t have enough time to fill out reports on the other half).

Then, Gehlbach and his colleagues left them alone for a couple months and waited. They expected that both students and teachers who learned what they had in common would report feeling more similar to one another and perceive their relationships better. Most importantly, they hypothesized that this would in turn lead to better student outcomes in grades and maybe even attendance.

When they got their results back they found that their intervention had indeed worked, but not in all the ways they expected. First, while both teachers and students reported feeling more similar to one another, only the teachers reported seeing themselves as having a better relationship with their students. Students on the other hand, didn’t seem to think their relationships were any better. And while the intervention didn’t improve attendance, it did improve grades and the amount of attention teachers gave their students.

Interestingly, the intervention didn’t help all students equally. It had no discernible effect on white and Asian students. Rather all of the academic gains were made by black and Latino students. In total, they report their intervention closed the achievement gap between students by 60 percent—the difference between a C+/B- and a B. With persistent disparities in education outcomes across the country for low-income and minority students, an intervention that takes about an hour to complete and can help close the gap this much could be a really big deal. Considering previous research that has shown black students performed better with black teachers and white students with white ones, an intervention aimed at forging homophily seems even more significant (Dee, 2004).

“That little nudge helps students and teachers to see their interactions in a more positive way, which can lead to greater academic achievement,” Gehlbach said. 

One explanation for why it worked—the one Gehlbach calls a bit pessimistic—is that this intervention simply helped reduce teachers’ racial bias. In this scenario, the teachers in their study (80 percent of whom were white) had lower expectations for their black and Latino students based on racial stereotypes and the intervention nudged them to see these students differently, more like themselves and more like better students. With this new perspective, teachers simply assigned their underperforming minority students better grades because they liked them more.

A former teacher himself, Gehlbach says he thinks there’s something a bit more nuanced going on. He says he believes the intervention helped create more entry points for meaningful connections between students and teachers. Indeed, teachers on the whole spent more time working with the students they learned they shared similarities with, which suggests the improvement in grades might be more a function of learning than liking.

“I think there are a handful of potential causal stories you could tell about what’s going on,” Gehlbach said. “Thinking specifically about the teacher’s perception of the relationship, the similarities feedback gives teachers some levers through which they can connect with a student and foster a greater sense of relationship. That little nudge helps students and teachers to see their interactions in a more positive way, which can lead to greater academic achievement.”

In future studies, Gehlbach says he hopes to be able to figure out what’s really driving the effect in order to make the intervention better.

Jonathan Cook, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University who was not affiliated with the study, says it’s definitely a positive outcome but it will be important to find out exactly what caused what in order to understand how lasting the effects of these interventions could be. In addition, Cook commended Gehlbach and his colleagues on the transparency of their research.

“One of the things I like about the article is they were very honest in their research process,” Cook said. “I was really impressed with their research integrity.”

The study is unique in that Gehlbach and his colleagues wrote a statement of transparency detailing their hypotheses and methods before they began to analyze their data. In it, they described what they did, what they wanted to find, and how they would analyze their data, and they committed to following through on that. It sounds pretty straight-forward, but often researchers may go back and run different statistical analyses or recruit more subjects if their results aren’t as big as they expected.

It’s led to a growing concern about the validity of many nuanced studies as well as the ease with which researchers could run different analyses to make their data say, well, anything—this was illustrated perhaps most poignantly by researchers at Wharton and UC Berkeley, who published a peer-reviewed study showing they were able to change people’s actual birthdays by having them listen to a Beatle’s song. Writing statements of transparency early in the research process, and even having researchers pre-register their plan of research as some have called for, is one way of ensuring social scientists are forthright with their findings.

It was in their statement of transparency that Gehlbach and his colleagues noted their previous attempts at running this intervention, which weren’t successful. In previous, unpublished experiments they ran a similar intervention, trying to unite teachers and students using more superficial commonalities like favorite pizza toppings and preferences for crunchy or creamy peanut butter. In contrast to previous studies like the ones using birthdays and fingerprints, Gehlbach and his colleagues didn’t find that such general similarities ignited any meaningful connections between students and teachers. Their present study shows they needed to find more significant similarities in values and interests.

Gehlbach says he knows the intervention isn’t perfect yet, but he says they’re ready to start implementing it in other schools. Through working with more teachers and schools, he says they’ll be able to continue to improve the intervention, which he’s hopeful will continue to lead to better academic outcomes.

“I think there are tons and tons of pathways through which positive relationships between teachers and students are likely to lead to higher academic achievement,” Gehlbach said. “When we find we have things in common with someone else that are actually meaningful, we have a sense we’re going to have our values and sense of self affirmed by spending time with this person.”