Romero Works to Eliminate Clouds Obscuring Student Trust
“Trust is a social resource, so as such, it’s not immune to things like bias”
During her years as a teacher and principal at low-income schools, Lisa Romero came to an important realization:
It’s important for teachers to be competent and knowledgeable, but when working to improve challenged schools, trust and school climate – key intangibles – matter as well.
Romero, an associate professor in the Educational Leadership program, is exploring the role such intangibles play in educational outcomes, and how teachers and administrators can use them to improve their schools.
“Teachers who struggled with students, it wasn’t because they didn’t know their content area,” she said. “What they struggled with was, how do you establish appropriate relationships of trust in the first place, so students are willing to learn from you?”
Romero is among the first researchers to consider trust from students’ perspectives, as contrasted with how adults such as teachers or parents see it. Her most recent study, published in 2018, found that all students who trust teachers in schools have better outcomes, but that the results are more positive for white than black students.
“Trust is a social resource, so as such, it’s not immune to things like bias,” she said. Even if they trust their teacher, for example, black students are more likely to be punished for minor offenses than their white peers, and feel the effects of that punishment longer.
Schools often treat trust as a single measure with a binary answer – high or low – but Romero breaks it into three factors: Do students perceive teachers and administrators as benevolent, as competent, and as trustworthy? Her research provides tools for schools to more finely diagnose issues of trust – for example, a teacher who is seen as knowledgeable but unkind – and make targeted improvements.
Romero’s current research, with Associate Professor of Education Meagan O’Malley, looks into how school climate affects student achievement, specifically among Latinx students. The work, funded through a prestigious Spencer Foundation grant, is aligned with new state funding guidelines that prioritize school climate.
“We’ve gotten preoccupied with everything having to be about better grades and better outcomes, which I completely agree with,” she said. “But on the other hand, I also think that children spend a large part of their day in school, and a positive school climate is something that is desirable in its own right.”