Phi Beta Cons

‘TAs Like Me’: Take Two

Yesterday, in “TAs Like Me,” I discussed a new National Bureau of Economic Research study, “TAs Like Me: Racial Interactions between Graduate Teaching Assistants and Undergraduates.” I relied on its abstract and an article about it by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed since, as I mentioned, I did not pay to download the full study. After I wrote, however, Phi Beta Con administrator Jane Shaw managed to get a copy of the study and discovered a smoking gun that requires the following emendations and additional criticisms (see her comments on my original post).

The smoking gun is that the study’s data and conclusions concern only “Asians” and “non-Asians.” As the authors state (page 8), “we are solely comparing the academic performances of Asian and non-Asian students within the same class.” Thus, unless Asians are a race, the study said absolutely nothing about the “racial interactions” promised by its title and its abstract’s conclusion ”that assignment to similar race TAs positively affect” (sic) student performance. 

In presenting their findings the authors do occasionally mention ”race/ethnicity,” but more often they concentrate exclusively on race. Thus on page two they write “[i]n this paper, we begin to shed light on the importance of TAs in the education production process. To do so, we focus on the role of TA race.” And again in the conclusion:

The goal of this paper is to shed light on the importance of TAs in the education production process, focusing on the role of TA race. Understanding how TA race influences student outcomes is particularly important given recent trends in the US, where the fraction of non-White undergraduate and graduate students has nearly tripled over the past 40 years. Prominent racial gaps, in turn, lead to persistent income inequality across racial groups.

What “prominent racial gaps” do the authors have in mind? Between whites and Asians? Or do they believe that the fact that Asian students get higher grades from Asian TAs means that black and Hispanic students get higher grades from black and Hispanic TAs?

In any event, presenting conclusions based on comparing Asians and non-Asians as though they are about race, and especially about “inequality across racial groups,” is remarkable. Equally remarkable is the fact that IHE’s Scott Jaschik did not mention the study’s looking only at Asians and non-Asians. He presumably read the entire study because in his own conclusion he quoted its conclusion about “inequality across racial groups.”

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