Equity & Diversity

Teachers’ Lower Expectations for Black Students May Become ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,’ Study Finds

By Evie Blad — October 24, 2017 4 min read
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White teachers are generally less optimistic about their black students’ chances of obtaining a four-year degree than black teachers, a new study finds. And those lowered expectations could become “self-fulfilling prophecies” when students internalize them or when teachers change their approach to students as a result, researchers suggest in an article published in Education Next.

“Our analysis supports the conventional wisdom that teacher expectations matter,” write Seth Gerhenson, a public policy professor at American University, and Nicholas Papageorge, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. “College completion rates are systematically higher for students whose teachers had higher expectations for them. More troublingly, we also find that white teachers, who comprise the vast majority of American educators, have far lower expectations for black students than they do for similarly situated white students.”

The authors suggest schools should address teacher expectations, work to eliminate racial bias among staff, and seek to hire a more diverse teaching force.

Measuring Bias in Teacher Expectations

Gerhenson and Papageorge drew their conclusions after analyzing data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative set of 6,000 students from the cohort of teenagers who were in 10th grade in 2002, and collected by a division of the U.S. Department of Education. That dataset includes information from student surveys, teacher surveys, standardized tests, and administrative data from schools. Among the data points—survey responses from students’ math and reading teachers asking whether they expect each student to finish high school, complete some college, or earn a degree.

Surveyed teachers expected 58 percent of white high school students to finish at least a four-year degree. They expected 37 percent of black high school students to do the same.

When evaluating the same black student, white teachers were nine percentage points less likely than black teachers to expect that that student would earn a college degree.

Correlation vs. Causation

The researchers also found that students were more likely to complete a degree if their teachers predicted they would.

But correlation is not equal to causation. Were teachers unfairly biased against their students? The researchers said that teachers’ perceptions could be based on an awareness of systemic problems those students faced that might make degree attainment more difficult—problems like poverty and unequal educational resources.

So they analyzed the data in several different ways to look for evidence that teachers’ expectations were too low and evidence that those lower expectations affected students’ degree attainment. In one analysis, they analyzed one teacher’s perception of the student, controlling for the other teacher’s perception of the same student and other factors, like students’ backgrounds and past grades.

“The second teacher’s expectation is a valuable control in this setting, as it explicitly accounts for many of the unobserved factors that affect both the first teacher’s expectation and the student’s educational attainment,” the researchers write.

Another analysis incorporated other data points, including teacher optimism (measured by determining if their expectations for their students are, on average, higher than other teachers’), teacher survey responses about individual students’ attentiveness in class, and student survey responses about whether they enjoy the class.

Their conclusion is that all teachers “are overly optimistic about whether their students will complete college, but that white teachers are less optimistic about black students than are black teachers.”

“All teachers are optimistic, but white students receive more optimism than their black classmates,” the article says. “This means that even though white teachers’ lower expectations for black students are in a sense more accurate, this accuracy is selectively applied in a way that puts black students at a disadvantage. Since positive expectations increase students’ likelihood of going to college, the greater optimism heaped upon white students magnifies black-white gaps in college completion.”

Why High Expectations Matter for Students of Color

Gerhenson and Papageorge’s analysis builds on previous research that shows, among other things, that adults see black girls as less innocent than their white peers and that teachers have differing expectations for students of color.

Why do these expectations matter? How do they affect student outcomes?

“Students might perceive and emotionally react to low or high teacher expectations, which could benefit or damage the quality of their work,” the researchers write."Or, they might actively modify their own expectations and, in turn, their behavior to conform to what they believe teachers expect of them. Alternatively, teachers with expectations for certain types of students may modify how they teach, evaluate, and advise them, and in the case of low expectations, could perhaps shift their attention, time, and effort to other students.

“Each of these possibilities creates feedback loops that trigger self-fulfilling prophecies: intentionally or not, teacher expectations cause student outcomes to converge on what were initially incorrect expectations.”

Photo: Getty Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.