Explaining the achievement gap: teachers' expectations

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Sílvia Bonamusa
March 12, 2008

Explaining the achievement gap: Teachers’ expectations

Researchers have pointed out a wide range of theories in an attempt to explain the Black-White achievement gap. One of the explanations that has been given is that teachers have lower expectations for their students of color, which has an effect on their academic achievement. In my paper, Isupport this theory and argue that teachers’ low expectations for students of color contribute to the perpetuation and widening of the achievement gap.
Despite their good intentions, it is highly likely that many teachers in any educational context have lower expectations for students of color. The legacy of colonization and slavery, as well as scientific theories arguing for the inferiority ofnon-Whites, still weigh on all of us. Indeed, in 1984, 46% of the university professors and researchers participating in a survey stated that Black-White differences in IQ were genetic to some degree (Snyderman & Rothman, 1987). These negative stereotypes are reinforced by highly influential studies such as 1994 The Bell Curve. According to Pollock (2007), “when [educators] say that [they] have ‘highexpectations for all students,’...what [they] really mean is that [they] are struggling against the expectations [they] have been programmed to have, that some race groups are ‘smarter’ than others” (2007).
Teachers’ expectations are likely to have an impact on students’ achievement. In 1964, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) designed a study in an elementary school located in a lower-classcommunity to determine the relationship between these two variables. At the beginning of the academic year, they selected 20% of students randomly and told their teachers that, according to the IQ test they had taken, these students “would show dramatic intellectual growth” (p. 175). In another IQ test at the end of the year, these “special” students scored significantly higher than the rest of thestudents, although they were not subjected to a different curriculum. According to Rosenthal and Jacobson, thus, teachers’ high expectations are a good predictor of students’ high achievement, regardless of IQ level or past achievement. Drawing on this study, it seems fair to assume that, if students of color are held to low expectations, they are less likely to show academic improvement. Indeed, theirteachers might be encouraging the perpetuation of past trends of underachievement. Black students’ chances of academic achievement might be further hindered by the fact that they seem to be more affected by teachers’ beliefs than White students. In their study, Jussim, Eccles and Madon found that “teachers’ perceptions of [student] performance, talent and effort” affected Blacks three times asmuch as Whites (1996, as cited in Ferguson, 2003, p. 472).
As a result of having low expectations for students of color, teachers working in predominantly non-White schools are less likely to expose them to a challenging curriculum that highlights students’ strengths. Their chances of achievement are, thus, hampered. According to Delpit, “teaching education focuses on research that links failureand socioeconomic status, failure and cultural difference” (1995, p. 172). Since teachers receive this kind of education, they usually tend to “assume deficits in students rather than to locate and teach to strengths” (p. 172). They offer them a watered-down curriculum and end up “teaching less when, in actuality, these students need more of what school has to offer” (p. 178).
Teachers’ lowexpectations for their students of color might also have an effect on the degree to which teachers feel responsible for promoting students’ achievement. According to Ferguson (2003), “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...
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