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Teachers' Low Expectations for Students of Color Found to Affect Students' Success

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A new study adds to the growing body of research saying that teachers' expectations of students matter, and that they tend to underestimate the academic abilities of students of color. 

The study, authored by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, was published in the journal Social Science Research. Cherng analyzed data from about 10,000 high school sophomores and their teachers, from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002. 

After controlling for factors like standardized test scores and homework completion, Cherng found that both math and English teachers were more likely to perceive their class as too difficult for students of color compared to white students.Teachers were most likely to say their class was too difficult for black students—18 percent of math teachers and 13 percent of English teachers said that was the case. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of math teachers and 6 percent of English teachers said their class was too difficult for white students. 

There was a 6 percentage-point gap between both math and English teachers' expectations for white and Latino students, and a 4 percentage-point gap between English teacher expectations for white and Asian-American students. There was just a 2 percentage-point gap between math teachers' expectations for white and Asian-American students, which Cherng attributed to the "model minority" myth, in which Asians are expected to excel at school, especially in math. (A previous study Cherng did looked at how stereotypes of Asian-American students as top-performers could lower their own expectations.) 

And those low expectations had an impact: "Based on my analysis, teachers' underestimating their students' abilities actually causes students to have lower academic expectations of themselves, meaning that they expected they would complete less school," Cherng says in a statement. 

Black students, especially, had lower expectations of themselves.

The study also examined students' GPAs and found that teachers' low expectations were linked with lower GPAs. However, that relationship was weaker (but still existed) for black students. 

"It is possible that black students anticipate that their teachers think less of them and work harder in class to prove them wrong, hence the less negative effect on their GPAs. Challenging teacher underestimations may be unique to black students, who have a long history of resisting discrimination within schools," Cherng continued. "Regardless, teacher underestimations are harmful to black youth."

A John Hopkins University study last year found that white teachers—who comprise 82 percent of the profession—are less likely to expect academic success with black students, especially black boys. And a 2010 Georgia Southern University study found that 342 students reported that they had experienced a type of microaggression, such as a teacher assuming a black student was poor or acting surprised when a student of color was articulate, at least once during high school. (For more on how microaggressions can hurt students' learning, see this 2015 Education Week story.) 

Cherng recommends that teacher-preparation programs or professional development should address these biases. My colleague Brenda Iasevoli recently wrote about a professional development program that teaches teachers how to discuss issues of race and equity in the classroom. Another recent study found that when prospective teachers have a semester of immersive practice in a diverse classroom, they feel more confident teaching students of different backgrounds. 

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