School & District Management

Effort Targets ‘Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations’

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 12, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
Social studies teacher Marjorie Kahiga, second from left, sits among her 6th grade students during a two-day professional-development program for teachers at Hawthorne Avenue School of Science and Technology in Newark, N.J., last week.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the research company evaluating the program. The evaluator is Westat, based in Rockville, Md.

Researchers and policymakers agree that teachers’ expectations of what their students can do can become self-fulfilling prophecies for children’s academic performance.

Yet while the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has become an education catchphrase, scholars and advocates are just beginning to explore whether it is possible to prevent such expectations from taking root by making teachers and students aware of their beliefs about students.

“A lot of what we do is built on a belief system,” said Stefanie Rome, the director of professional development for the New York City-based National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. “What beliefs do we have about how students learn? How do we approach students’ learning?”

The alliance, which works with school districts to train teachers to give students of all income levels and all racial and ethnic groups the same enriched instruction that students receive in gifted education programs, this year launched a program in Bridgeport, Conn.; Greene County, Ga.; San Francisco; and, as of last week, here in Newark, N.J., to bring students and teachers together for lessons on cognitive development, instructional strategies, and lesson planning, with the students then modeling the instruction in a classroom for the teachers.

The joint professional development course is intended to teach students to think critically about how they learn and are taught, while at the same time countering what the alliance’s chief executive officer, Yvette Jackson, called a “focus on weakness.”

Prior research shows that teachers, particularly those who are white middle-class, tend to overemphasize academic and social challenges for poor and ethnic-minority students, sometimes overlooking students’ potential to succeed.

The idea behind involving students in professional-development workshops, she said, is to help teachers look at their students in a new way—and vice versa.

New Program Brings Kids to The Head of The Class

By including students in professional development, the Hawthorne Avenue School of Science and Technology in Newark raises expectations of both teachers and students.

“If kids are working with teachers—not on a totally equal basis, but with common things that both are learning at the same time—then you have a new experience that you can both talk about,” Ms. Jackson said. “So teachers ultimately say: ‘I can’t automatically judge kids based on my frame of reference. They’re not coming up with a different answer because they’re stupid, but because they have a different lens that they see the world out of.’”

‘Pygmalion’ Study

The importance of teacher expectations in students’ academic-achievement trajectories was made clear in a famous 1964 “Pygmalion” experiment led by Robert Rosenthal, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. In it, 18 teachers were told that a test predicted strong growth from several students (chosen at random) in the next year. Eight months later, Mr. Rosenthal found children expected to grow had actually improved on an intelligence test, and their teachers found them to be “interesting, curious, and happy.”

The alliance bases its professional development on Mr. Rosenthal’s work, as well as that of Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck and others. For example, Ms. Rome noted that teachers discuss one of Ms. Dweck’s studies that found teachers expect more, and students perform better and take more risks, when they believe that achievement comes from students’ effort and education, rather than from innate intelligence.

The alliance only recently began including students in the sessions, but their participation “has changed the discourse between students and teachers tremendously,” Ms. Jackson said.

Reaching Out

One such workshop was under way last week at one of the alliance’s partner schools, the K-8 Hawthorne Avenue School of Science and Technology in Newark. Over two days, teachers and middle school students learned new teaching techniques—from mnemonics to help remember children’s names to a pedagogical flowchart to improve pacing of lesson plans. The teachers helped students understand a few tricks of the trade, such as creating a call-and-response to focus class attention, while students related their class experiences to teachers.

Bruce Fryer, an 8th grade literacy and social studies teacher, got into an animated discussion of class planning with a trio of 8th grade girls. Shatiana Hilarski, one of them, expressed surprise that Mr. Fryer said he works eight hours on a lesson. She said she would be more engaged in class, knowing now how much time had gone into planning it.

Social studies and literacy teacher Bruce Fryer, right, compares journal notes with his 8th grade student Shatiana Hilarski, during Hawthorne's two-day professional-development program. Though she called herself "Shy Shatiana" during an activity at the start of the workshop, by its end she helped teach a 5th grade class in front of Mr. Fryer and other adults.

Mr. Fryer said that learning alongside students has made him think about how he treats students, particularly boys, in class. “When I have a time like this to reflect, I think I haven’t been doing a good job of this,” he said. “Have I really been connecting?”

Stepping Up

The next day, Mr. Fryer and the other adults had a chance to step back and observe as the students used their new tools to create and team-teach a writing lesson on the theme of “relationships” for a 5th grade class.

Pairs of students walked the class through activities, from developing a taxonomy of words about relationships to writing about them and discussing their writing with classmates.

“Normally [class] can get a little chaotic, but this is so structured, it’s amazing,” said Marjorie Kahiga, a 6th grade teacher, as she watched the 5th graders listen to the older students.

“Most of these urban kids feel so lost,” she said. “They need to see this, to see what they can achieve.”

When younger students looked confused, the other student-teachers started to fan out among the desks, answering questions and helping. Among the student-teachers was 6th grader Marc Manasse, an intent boy who entered late and was quiet during the initial work sessions. He hovered over one table, clarifying instructions and even urging the lead student-teacher to call on one of “his” students during the class discussion.

Ms. Kahiga watched but stayed back. She was, as she put it, amazed.

Sixth grader Marc Manasse, standing, helps Jeremiah Williams, a 5th grader, identify key words in a West African folktale, while Jeremiah's classmate Sierra Brower, left, looks on. Marc and other middle school students at Hawthorne Avenue School of Science and Technology in Newark, N.J., taught the lesson during a two-day teacher-student workshop conducted by the New York City-based National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.

“Marc is a handful, a real handful,” Ms. Kahiga said. “Normally, in class every day I’m saying, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I’m always correcting him. Now when I see him in this opportunity, I can see what a leader he is.”

The second day ended with a debriefing in which both teachers and student-teachers discussed how the students had taught and what they had learned. Marc, the 6th grader, after working with the younger class, said he decided he wants to become a teacher. “I learned that teaching is not that easy, because you have to stay on task,” he said. “You can’t just walk away from the students and expect them to learn; you have to keep on them and make sure they get things done.”

It remains to be seen whether the program, which will cover 10 such workshops with different students this year, will lead to improvements in student performance. The alliance introduced the change in the fourth year of a five-year grant through the federal Striving Readers program, and the Rockville, Md.-based Westat, the grant’s evaluators, have yet to review it.

But participating teachers said including students in the session was eye-opening. “Honestly, as teachers, we can shut them out of the learning process,” Ms. Kahiga said. “They need to be part of the learning process.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Raising Expectations Is Aim of New Effort


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