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Race, academic achievement and the issue of inequitable motivational payoff


As racial inequities continue to pervade school systems around the world, further research is necessary to understand the factors undergirding this pressing issue. Here across three studies conducted in the United States (N = 8,293), we provide evidence that race-based differences in student achievement do not stem from a lack of motivation among Black, Latinx and Indigenous (BLI) students, but a lack of equitable motivational payoff. Even when BLI and non-BLI students have the same levels of motivation, BLI students still receive maths grades that are an average of 9% lower than those of their non-BLI peers (95% confidence interval 7 to 11%). This pattern was not explained by differences in students’ aptitude, effort or prior achievement but was instead linked to teachers’ diminished expectations for their BLI students’ academic futures. We conclude by discussing statistical power limitations and the implications of the current findings for how researchers consider the sources of, and solutions for, educational inequity.

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Fig. 1: Motivation profile results for studies 1–3.
Fig. 2: Results from models predicting maths grade from BLI background within each motivational profile for studies.
Fig. 3: SEM results demonstrating mediating role of teachers’ expectations for students’ academic futures in the negative relationship between BLI background and grade within each motivational profile in study 3.

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Data availability

Per the ethics board agreement, the complete datasets for studies 1 and 2 will be made available upon request pending approval from the University System of Georgia. The datasets provided will be limited to the variables relevant to the current analyses. The complete dataset for study 3 is publicly available on the National Center for Education Statistics website:

Code availability

The complete analytic code for each study may be found here:


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We would like to thank I. A. Hernandez and D. C. Molden for providing valuable feedback throughout our work on the project. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (no. DGE-1842165, D.M.S.), Joyce Foundation (grant number 16-37550, C.S.H. and Y.T.) and National Science Foundation (grant number EHR 2000507, C.S.H. and Y.T.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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D.M.S. determined the initial research question and methodological approach, conducted all analyses and wrote the manuscript. R.J.R. helped develop the research question and assisted with the manuscript writing process. S.V.W. assisted with analyses and data collection. Y.T. and C.S.H. assisted with the data collection and the writing process. M.D. helped develop the research question, advised on all analyses and assisted with the writing process.

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Correspondence to David M. Silverman.

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Silverman, D.M., Rosario, R.J., Wormington, S.V. et al. Race, academic achievement and the issue of inequitable motivational payoff. Nat Hum Behav 7, 515–528 (2023).

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