Why It’s Such a Big Problem When Teachers Have Low Expectations for Their Black Students

When I was in the eleventh grade, I had an english teacher named Mr. Clawson. He was a great instructor; really funny and thoughtful. And although he and I never built any special rapport, I felt I learned a great deal from him that year.

But the most important lesson Mr. Clawson gave me occured during my senior year. My new twelfth grade english teacher was going through the attendance list — and when she got to my name, she paused.

“Oh, so you’re Michael Mitchell,” she said, “Mr. Clawson told me to expect big things. He spoke very highly of you.”

In the moment, it shocked me to hear this. I was by no stretch a standout student — I had decent but not spectacular grades and a shy personality. So to hear something like that really had an impact. To know that someone outside of my mother and father expected something of me — and saw potential in me — made me expect something more of myself.

I think it’s a relatively safe statement to say that teachers can have can make a big impression in the lives of the students they supervise. I hope its equally uncontroversial to say that every student deserves a teacher that believes in their ability and expects big things from them.

Unfortunately, a new study provides evidence that not all teachers expect much from their pupils — and that these varied expectations aren’t random. Instead they play out — like so many other educational disparities — along lines of race.

From the lead author:

When looking at average effects across all students, we find small, statistically significant effects of student-teacher racial mismatch on teachers’ expectations. However, these relatively small average effects are entirely driven by much larger effects among black students. For example, when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.  

This is not the first study to reveal teacher biases based on race. A 2007 analysis summarizing recent literature on the topic indicated that teachers held higher expectations, provided more positive feedback and more positive referrals to white and asian-american students over black and latinx children.

And these findings are not trivial. Research has also indicated that teacher expectations can influence student outcomes. In one fascinating study, researchers from Harvard administered a school-wide test dubbed the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition. After grading the results, teachers (but not the students) were informed of which students had done well — and that they should expect those students to have particularly exceptional outcomes in the school year ahead — the researchers termed these students ‘bloomers.’

At the end of the school year, when all the kids were re-tested using the same standard — the kids who had been labeled as ‘bloomers’ did, in fact, show real and significant gains. And for the teachers, this reaffirmed what they had been told at the beginning of the year.

But there was a big catch — predicted “bloomers” were not determined by their initial test score. Rather, they were randomly selected by the researchers; there was no reason whatsoever why those students would do any better than the students who were not selected. The only difference was that their teachers believed they would excel. And so they did.

If expectations are influenced by race — which then influence outcomes — we are led to a much larger problem. That is, racially biased teacher expectations can perpetuate and even widen educational disparities that students may already come into school with.

And that’s what some fear is happening:

…at both the top and the bottom of the test score distribution, stereotypes of Black intellectual inferiority are reinforced by past and present disparities in performance and probably cause teachers to underestimate Blacks’ potential more than Whites’. If they expect that Black children have less potential, teachers probably search with less conviction than they should for ways of helping Black children to improve and miss opportunities to reduce the Black-White test score gap.

To fight this, some experts have focused on how to adjust the expectations of research by changing actions. Robert Pianta, a professor at the University of Virginia has created a list of benchmarks to help teachers fight bias in expectation.

The list is admirable (you can see it below), but it is color-blind. Teachers must be able to understand how their own expectations may explicitly be biased by race. At the same time we should not shy away from asking teachers to grapple with how race impacts their students. But unfortunately, Gary Orfield, a professor at UCLA observes that – despite being a much more diverse country today – we’re getting worse, not better, at doing this:

Several decades ago, when there were much greater efforts to desegregate schools, there were also initiatives to prepare teachers with tools to minimize problems of conflict, to combat in school segregation, and to contest stereotypes and maximize learning opportunities in diverse classrooms and schools. Research showed that these investments in training teachers worked, but when the period of active desegregation efforts passed these efforts were largely abandoned. Teachers in diverse and nonwhite schools report more training in how to teach in diverse settings than those in white suburbs but they often face testing pressures that mean that they do not have time to employ those skills or impart that knowledge.  

This is a major failure.

I tried googling Mr. Clawson recently to see if he’s still teaching — but to no avail. I’m sure he has no idea how much of an impact he has had on my life. Every student deserves such an experience, yet the only way that happens is by pushing teachers and instructors past the stereotypes and subconscious biases. We must challenge our schools to to address head on the role that race and racism plays in shaping our educational experiences and opportunities. It’s not an easy undertaking — especially in a country which, as a whole, has failed continually to place itself under a similar examination. But we must expect more from our teachers — because we know how important expectations can be.  

7 Ways Teachers Can Change Their Expectations

By Robert Pianta

  • Watch how each student interacts. How do they prefer to engage? What do they seem to like to do? Observe so you can understand all they are capable of.
  • Listen: Try to understand what motivates them, what their goals are and how they view you, their classmates and the activities you assign them.
  • Engage: Talk with students about their individual interests. Don’t offer advice or opinions – just listen.
  • Experiment: Change how you react to challenging behaviors. Rather than responding quickly in the moment, take a breath. Realize that their behavior might just be a way of reaching out to you.
  • Meet: Each week, spend time with students outside of your role as “teacher.” Let the students choose a game or other nonacademic activity they’d like to do with you. Your job is to NOT teach but watch, listen and narrate what you see, focusing on students’ interests and what they do well. This type of activity is really important for students with whom you often feel in conflict or who you avoid.
  • Reach out: Know what your students like to do outside of school. Make it a project for them to tell you about it using some medium in which they feel comfortable: music, video, writing, etc. Find both individual and group time for them to share this with you. Watch and listen to how skilled, motivated and interested they can be. Now think about school through their eyes.
  • Reflect: Think back on your own best and worst teachers, bosses or supervisors. List five words for each that describe how you felt in your interactions with them. How did the best and the worst make you feel? What specifically did they do or say that made you feel that way? Now think about how your students would describe you. Jot down how they might describe you and why. How do your expectations or beliefs shape how they look at you? Are there parallels in your beliefs and their responses to you?
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7 comments

  1. Very thought provoking and informative. Great piece. Teachers are so crucial but they are so under resourced. It makes me wonder if we valued teachers and their own education more highly there would be more room for this incredibly important kind of training to combat bias.

  2. Very informative and well-written post. As a teacher, I am always thinking about these issues and the biases that I might have. What we really really need is integration in our schools and more minority teachers. I listened to an amazing podcast the other day (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with) about how students who were integrated into “white” schools had great outcomes (for a whole host of reasons that are covered in the podcast, so I won’t reiterate them here), but we have pushed aside the idea of integration and gone back to essentially having separate schools for minority students (especially those who are living in poverty). And at the same time, we have mostly white teachers going into these schools with very little experience in working with minorities. I am a white teacher, and while I try very hard to be culturally aware and sensitive to race relations and issues, but the fact of the matter is that since I grew up in a segregated environment (there was 1 black student in my nearly all white high school), I am still going to have biases that I might not have if I had had more interactions with people of different backgrounds. We need more minority teachers and we need integration in our schools.

    I’m glad that you had a teacher that had high-expectations for you. Like you said, it makes a world of difference. I wrote a post a few months ago about how our thoughts can influence our actions and literally change the life-course of other people. In one study, scientists (who were part of the experiment) were told that they had “smart” mice when really they just had regular ordinary mice. But since they thought the mice were smart, the mice had better outcomes in the experiment because the scientists treated them differently. It’s so crazy. You can read more about it on my post: http://tryniakaufman.com/2015/02/15/my-thoughts-your-reality/

  3. Extremely interesting article – teachers are the catalysts of social change from the foundation of society, and especially in the issue of combatting biases, they have a great influence early on during a child’s social development.

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