Not-So-Great Expectations: Teachers Expect Less of Black and Brown Students

A study by the Center for American Progress finds that teacher expectations affect student outcome, and less is expected of black, brown and low-income kids.

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A recent study by the Center for American Progress released this month highlighted what some might call the “soft bigotry of low expectations” if there was a way to take a jug of Downy fabric softener and make old-fashioned implicit bias gentler.

The study found that teachers can have a bit of a Pygmalion effect on students, as in, if they believe a student is gifted and has promise, they will try to deliver on it—unless that child is black, brown or low-income; then the outlook is not so bright.

For poor students and students of color, CAP’s researchers found that teachers thought a college degree was more out of reach for African-American students, to the tune of thinking black students were 47 percent less likely than white students to make it to a higher education. Their thoughts on Latino students? That they were 42 percent less likely to attend college. The view was even bleaker for low-income students: The view was that they were 53 percent less likely than students from more-affluent families to go to college.

Now, sure, there’s a chance that these expectations of teachers are in line with how quite a few people view the impoverished, as well as black and brown children. Because of historical inequities in our society, more than a century of institutionalized racism, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, of course children who are affluent and white would be viewed with more promise. Based on how the decks are stacked in our society, such children do have more promise by design.

But education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the real chance students across the board have to become successful adults. Next to voting rights and ending segregation, the biggest fights in the civil rights movement involved the power and promise of education. Parents of lesser means fight to get their children into better schools and go on lengthy waiting lists for charter schools because they know education is the best bet they can place on their child.

The last person children need to doubt their potential is the person responsible for educating them. By believing less of black and brown children, some teachers are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. You believe a student is already too far gone, so you pay less attention, you listen less, you discipline more, and you absolve yourself of responsibility to children when they become lost in a system that is supposed to educate and protect them.

And this isn’t simply about poor black and brown students; these low expectations affect students of color regardless of their socioeconomic status. Even I—someone who had an educational advantage with two college-educated parents, one of them a former schoolteacher—faced this. My mother and I constantly dealt with teachers who dismissed or even tried to outright undermine my education. Teachers who made me jump through extra hoops to qualify for the gifted-and-talented program. Teachers who purposely “lost” my extra-credit homework and tried to sabotage my advancement by holding me back in lesser classes or trying to discourage me from taking Advanced Placement classes.

The A’s I earned and the honors classes I attended meant nothing. I wasn’t supposed to succeed, yet I did, thanks to my parents, the many other good teachers who saw me as a human being and not part of a collective lost cause, and my own personal resolve to achieve in spite of my treatment.

But most children don’t have the advantage I had: a stay-at-home mother who knew all the rules, games, and what teachers could and couldn’t do. I had an inside woman on my side. But no child should need to have a female, academic James Bond doing end runs around wayward pedagogy.

For students to succeed and achieve their greatest potential, or even advance out of their unfortunate circumstances, they need an educational foundation built by educators who care, who see them as individuals, not poverty cases or problematic minorities.