By Jason Burns
It is well understood that students with higher expectations experience more positive outcomes and in recognition of this, scholars have sought to understand how students form expectations for themselves. One of the most important sources of information for students in forming expectations is their teachers, as research has linked teachers’ expectations to outcomes such as grade point average (GPA) and even college completion. Troublingly, this may work against many black students as recent research has found that teachers tend to have lower expectations of their potential educational attainment.
Variation in Teacher Expectations
The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of students. Using this data, they were able to examine how different teachers viewed the same student and determine patterns in how teachers’ perception of students varied by teacher and student characteristics.
Disturbingly, the study found that white teachers tend to have lower expectations of black students than do black teachers. Compared to black teachers, non-black teachers were 12% more likely to predict that a black student wouldn’t finish high school and were 9% less likely to predict that a black student would complete at least a 4-year degree.
This pattern is even more pronounced by gender as non-black teachers tend to have lower expectations of black males than females, with the exception of math teachers.
Given the power of expectations on outcomes, this study should alarm policymakers and teacher educators, both of whom have the ability to address this issue. Policymakers would be wise to consider policies that aim to foster greater diversity in the teaching force, which is over 80% white. A more diverse teaching force would not only help shield minority students from lower expectations, but would also bring other benefits such as attenuating stereotypes and providing all students with experiences to prepare them for living in a diverse society.
Teacher educators can also have a role in correcting this difference in expectations. Much of what leads non-black teachers to form lower expectations of black students may be subconscious in nature and could be addressed by providing teacher candidates with experiences that help them to treat students equally. For instance, researchers at Vanderbilt University are using teaching simulations to help preservice teachers become more culturally sensitive in how they work with students from different backgrounds. A similar approach could be used to help teachers, both preservice and practicing, better understand how they form expectations and communicate them to students.
As the student population becomes more diverse, the importance of addressing issues like this will only increase. If we as a society are to promote the American dream that anyone can succeed, an important part of that is having high expectations for all of our students. Though this is not an intractable problem, much remains to be done to ensure that students’ belief in their own success is reinforced by those around them.
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