Student Well-Being

‘Racial Mismatch’ Changes Teacher Expectations for Students, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 14, 2015 3 min read
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Fifty years after the landmark Pygmalion experiments showed how teacher expectations help or hurt student learning, a new study suggests teachers’ own backgrounds deeply affect what they expect from students.

Having a different race or gender from a student can significantly affect a teacher’s belief in the student’s potential, finds a new study by researchers at American University and Johns Hopkins University.

“The effect of having a racial mismatch was bad for all students, but particularly black males,” said Seth Gershenson, a co-author of the study and an education policy economist at American University.

Gershenson and his colleagues used an ongoing federal longitudinal study starting in 2002 to analyze data on 8,000 students, each of whom had two separate teachers predicting how far the student would go in school: 53 percent of all teachers expected their student to complete a four-year college degree, while 19 percent expected their student to go no further than high school. Teachers were about 30 percentage points more likely to believe high-income students would graduate high school than poor students, and there was about the same expectations gap between children of college-educated mothers and mothers who dropped out of high school.

It gets particularly interesting when the researchers compared the ratings of different teachers for the same student, holding students’ income and prior academic achievement constant. Teachers who were not black were 12 percentage points more likely to think their black student would complete a high school diploma at most—that’s nearly 40 percent lower than the average expectation for black students. And when it came to black boys, a black female teacher was 20 percentage points more likely than a white teacher of either gender to believe her black male student would go on and succeed in college. The researchers also found significantly higher expectations for college completion when the teacher was of the same race as the student, but there were smaller gaps.

Gershenson plans to replicate the analysis with new 2012 data, both to confirm the expectations gaps and determine how much those teacher expectations affect students’ actual school and workplace achievement.

At a time when more than half of public school students are not white and more than 80 percent of teachers are white, schools have to work to bridge disconnects between teachers and students.

Teaching Great Expectations

In the Adams 14 school district just northeast of Denver, Colo., Superintendent Pat Sánchez is working to build his teachers’ expectations for the district’s working-class Latino students.

“We spend a lot of time working with adults who have deficit thoughts about children of color,” he said.

It can be difficult, he said, to make conversations about race and expectations practical. In professional development sessions last year, teachers were each given index cards. “On one side, you write down the name of a teacher who really made a difference to you, and two beliefs that person had about you,” Sánchez explained. “On the opposite side, what are two behaviors that teacher did that proved they had their beliefs about you? Did they put you in [Advanced Placement] class, did they talk with you after class?”

“You are showing, what do great teachers do? They have high expectations, and they treat their students accordingly,” he said. “You have to think, do you really feel that these kids can achieve at high levels, or is it that this or that is ‘good enough for those kids?’”

Beginning this Wednesday, Education Week will dig into what’s going on in Adams 14 and other districts around the country to counter racial, gender, and other biases in school, as well as exploring the science behind what makes unconscious biases so sticky. The story marks the start of a yearlong series examining strategies for tackling bias and its effects on students in the nation’s public schools.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.