Addressing Prejudice and Building Racial Equity into America’s Schools

Mark J. Van Ryzin
10 min readNov 14, 2020

Hint: It’s the pedagogy as much as the curriculum!

Despite landmark judicial victories such as Brown vs. Board of Education, our educational system remains racially segregated, even more than would be expected based upon neighborhood segregation (Orfield et al., 2016; Reardon & Owens, 2014; Sohoni & Saporito, 2009). Similarly, school-based friendship networks also tend to be racially segregated (Block & Grund, 2014; Cheng & Xie, 2013; Graham et al., 2009). This segregation can create an incomplete understanding of other ethnic or racial groups among White students, which can easily evolve into racial prejudice.

Racial segregation and prejudice in schools gives rise to discrimination and related forms of social exclusion and rejection, and these negative social processes impact students of color in the United States on a regular basis. For example, in a national survey, over 80% of Latino youth reported that discrimination and related negative social experiences were a chronic problem (Foxen, 2010); more recent surveys found that these negative social experiences exist at similar rates on-line (Tynes, 2015).

The chronic stress created by racial discrimination can challenge students’ abilities to learn and contributes to chronically low levels of achievement and graduation among students of color in America’s public schools. For example, in 2015–2016, the graduate rates for Black (76%), Latino (79%), and American Indian/Alaska Native (72%) students were all lower than that for White students (88%; McFarland et al., 2018).

Intervention programs aimed at reducing racial disparities in education often focus on reducing the impact of discrimination through coaching in coping mechanisms. However, such curriculum-based approaches can be expensive and time-consuming to implement, particularly if teachers are expected to become experts in the program and set aside instructional time to deliver them to students. There is an alternative approach that can address the underlying prejudice that gives rise to these negative social experiences in the first place. Importantly, this approach does not involve the implementation of an external curriculum, but rather involves a change in pedagogy.

Addressing Prejudice with Contact Theory

A powerful framework for addressing racial prejudice is Contact Theory (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew, 1998), which specifies the conditions under which social contact can lead to true social integration among members of different ethnic groups. These conditions are that:

(a) individuals are brought together as equals, with differences in social status being explicitly minimized;

(b) groups of individuals must be given a common goal to direct their interactions, and must be incentivized to work together to achieve their goal;

© the social contact must involve an extended amount of interaction time, preferably including mutual disclosure to assist in discovering areas of commonality; and,

(d) those in positions of authority must explicitly encourage and support positive, collaborative interactions and discourage any hints of ingroup vs. outgroup bias or prejudice.

When these conditions exist, inter-group contact leads to reduced prejudice, and individuals develop more favorable opinions of members of other groups (Molina & Wittig, 2006; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). In contrast, when these conditions do not exist, intergroup contact will increase, rather than reduce, intergroup tensions (Cohen & Lotan, 1995).

Contact Theory and Peer Learning

Contact Theory serves as the basis for a small-group instructional technique called peer learning (also known as cooperative learning or collaborative learning). The key design aspects of peer learning closely mirror the conditions put forth by Contact Theory. Specifically, peer learning brings students together under conditions of positive interdependence, where individual goals are structured such that individual goal attainment promotes the goal attainment of others in the learning group and vice versa. Under conditions of positive interdependence, students are more likely to interact in positive ways, such as providing instrumental and emotional support, and sharing information and resources (Deutsch, 1949; Johnson et al., 1983).

In addition to positive interdependence, peer learning specifies that each group member is held accountable for fulfilling their role (i.e., individual accountability), and teachers are encouraged to form groups at random to ensure that students work with a diverse cross-section of other students in the class. Teachers also designate tasks within groups at random (e.g., the person with the earliest birthday will go first) and distribute responsibility among the various roles within the group. The overall effect of these design considerations is to ensure an equal status among group members and eliminate the ability for one student to exert inordinate control over group processes and decision-making.

Peer learning also requires extended interpersonal interactions with mutual disclosure to encourage group members to get to know one another and find common ground. Finally, peer learning asks teachers to observe student interactions during learning activities and recognize and reinforce students that exhibit particular kinds of positive, helpful behavior (e.g., checking for understanding among group members, encouraging others in the group to participate, summarizing the group’s thinking).

Thus, peer learning can provide a mechanism by which youth can have positive social experience with peers and, over time, develop more positive peer relationships (Roseth et al., 2008). Peer learning can also enhance cross-ethnic peer relations. For example, peer learning has been found to promote more cross-race interaction, greater cross-ethnic academic support, and more frequent cross-ethnic friendship choices (Johnson et al., 1984; Slavin, 2001; Weigel et al., 1975). In addition, Van Ryzin, Roseth, and McClure (2020) found that peer learning can reduce ethnic disparities in educational outcomes, such as perceived peer support and academic engagement, and create greater equity among students of color.

Implementing Peer Learning

Peer learning is viewed as a conceptual framework within which teachers can apply the basic concepts to design their own small-group activities using any existing curricula. Peer learning can include reciprocal teaching (e.g., Jigsaw), peer tutoring, collaborative reading, and other methods in which peers help each other learn in small groups. In a jigsaw lesson, for example, each student in a learning group is given responsibility for a portion of the overall content of the lesson (Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979). The student must learn their portion of the content and, in collaboration with other students who have been assigned the same content, the student must prepare materials to use when teaching the content to the other students in their group. Similarly, other students in the group learn other portions of the content and teach it to the group. In this way, all the students in the group are exposed to all of the lesson content.

With the framework of peer learning, there are many opportunities to promote positive interdependence. For example, teachers may require a single finished product from a group (goal interdependence), or may offer a reward to the group if everyone achieves above a certain threshold on an end-of-unit quiz or test (reward interdependence). The lesson plan may require that each member of the group be issued different materials that they must share in order to complete the lesson (resource interdependence), or that each member of the group has a different role to play (role interdependence) or a unique task that must be completed sequentially, like an assembly line, in order for the lesson to be completed successfully (task interdependence). These varied forms of positive interdependence can be added to a single lesson, increasing the incentive for students to collaborate.

Individual accountability could include an end-of-unit assessment to be taken individually (with the potential for group rewards as discussed above), or something as simple as a random oral quiz by the teacher as he or she supervises the group work during class time. In this scenario, if a randomly chosen member of a group can effectively summarize their work or present their project status, then the group earns credit toward their grade in the lesson (or potentially other rewards, such as snacks, special privileges, etc.).

Finally, peer learning also calls for explicit coaching in collaborative social skills (e.g., checking for understanding among group members, encouraging others to participate, summarizing the group’s thinking), a high degree of interpersonal interaction, and guided processing of group performance (e.g., where the group discusses what they did well and identify areas for improvement).


An important aim of education should be to provide students with experiences that help them to develop positive attitudes toward individuals from different ethnic groups (Banks, 2006). Not only can peer learning promote these sort of positive attitudes about different ethnic groups (Johnson & Johnson, 2000; Slavin & Cooper, 1999), but peer learning can have stronger effects on social and academic outcomes among students of color. This suggests that peer learning can begin to address the ethnic disparities in education that often arise when negative attitudes about racial or ethnic groups are allowed to persist.

Peer learning can create such powerful results because social interactions are deliberately structured to reflect the principles of Contact Theory (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew, 1998). Peer learning attempts to reduce differences in social status wherever possible by limiting the degree to which individual students can influence the activities of the group. Peer learning also reduces ethnic disparities by giving members of different ethnic groups the opportunity to work together constructively to achieve common goals. As a result, peer learning shifts social interactions among students that may have been aversive, particularly for students of color, into interactions marked by curiosity, mutual support, and enthusiasm, which can reduce prejudice and discrimination.

In previous research, peer learning has been found to have a wide range of positive effects. For example, the positive peer relations that arise from peer learning have been linked to increases in cognitive and affective empathy and, in turn, to reductions in bullying (Van Ryzin & Roseth, 2019a). These positive peer relations have also been linked to reductions in substance use, stress, and emotional problems, and higher levels of prosocial behavior and academic achievement (Roseth et al., 2008; Van Ryzin & Roseth, 2019b, c; Van Ryzin, Roseth, & Biglan, 2020). Thus, peer learning can be seen as an instructional approach that can not only contribute to significant improvement in student behavior, social-emotional skills, mental health, and academic achievement, but can also contribute to greater racial equity in education.


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Mark J. Van Ryzin

Dr. Van Ryzin is at the University of Oregon ( He conducts research and professional development in peer learning (