America’s Teachers Still Don’t Think Black and Latino Kids Are Smart

Researchers from the Center for American Progress found that many educators continue to have lower expectations for students of color.

(Photo: Kali Nine/Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Students of color are up against difficult odds. They are more likely to be trapped in failing, underfunded schools; more likely to be suspended for minor infractions; less likely to have “expert teachers.” While policy makers, educators, parents, and politicians seem to be scrambling to figure out how to close the achievement gap by demanding more rigorous nationwide standards, a new report by the Center for American Progress found that the very folks tasked with making sure kids of color succeed might be the ones holding them back.

In The Power of the Pygmalion Effect, CAP researchers combed through a decade of data about 10th graders to explore how teacher expectations affect student achievement. Predictably, the report found that high schoolers whose teachers had high expectations for their future were far more likely to finish college than those whose teachers did not. Sounds great—until you further analyze the results.

“Secondary teachers have lower expectations for students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” the report’s authors write. “Secondary teachers predicted that high-poverty students were 53 percent less likely to earn a college diploma than their more affluent peers.”

While it seems logical that economically disadvantaged students would struggle more than their affluent peers to finish college, given the difficulties they face, the report also found that many teachers have lower expectations for students of color before they even step into the classroom.

According to an analysis of teacher attitudes, educators believed “African American students were 47 percent less likely to graduate from college than their white peers.” Hispanic students didn’t fare much better: Teachers thought they were 42 percent less likely to earn a college diploma than their white classmates.

Though the breakdown in how students are viewed based on their race seems troubling, CAP researchers caution against labeling teachers as racist simply because they view possible student outcomes differently.

“Educators’ expectations might simply be a mirror of the broader problems of the nation’s education system,” the report’s authors write. But Rafranz Davis, an instructional technology specialist in Dallas, says the issue goes deeper than that.

“As a teacher and as a parent, I have definitely experienced that some teachers still have wild assumptions of inability when it comes to kids of color,” Davis says. “Generally people still correlate all students of color with poverty, and they apply what they think that they know about poverty to student achievement.”

Despite some teachers’ harboring stereotypes about minority students, Davis says she’s found that students of color are far less likely to be stigmatized when their teachers look like them.

“I have found that students in schools with majority teachers of color do not share the same [negative] academic experience, while students in schools with little to no teachers of color certainly do,” she notes. “For example, a white kid in an AP class is no surprise, but a Hispanic or black kid is often met with ‘Wow, I didn’t expect him/her to be so articulate.’ ”

This inherent, often unconscious bias on the part of some teachers prevents many from connecting with students, which only furthers the notion that kids of color don’t want to learn.

“People do not see the urgency of the need to support and motivate students of color,” Davis says. “I live in Texas, and most white teachers think that racism does not exist anymore, and many of them believe that when [people of color] see and feel it, we are playing the race card. People write off students of color because they don’t identify with their own biases. To them, they are color-blind.”

Jose Lara, a teacher and the vice president of the El Rancho Unified School District, just outside Los Angeles, agrees that low teacher expectations is a challenge kids of color face, but he says it’s not the most important one.

“It’s not about just ‘higher expectations’—it’s about the material conditions of our schools, the curriculum that is taught, and the lack of support for students,” Lara says. “The largest indicator of student success and failure is not teachers’ attitudes, high-stakes tests, or expectations; it’s poverty.” Lara says plenty of other problems affect students of color, such as zero-tolerance discipline policies, a lack of ethnic studies courses, and a lack of funding for smaller class sizes and support staff such as counselors, social workers, and librarians.

“To talk about higher expectations and avoid talking about these large social issues is a cop-out for those who would rather fund prisons than schools,” he says.

Despite Lara’s push to broaden the conversation beyond teacher expectations, how educators view their students does matter.

“After controlling for student demographics, teacher expectations were more predictive of college success than many major factors, including student motivation and student effort,” the CAP researchers write.

In the end, CAP recommends that teacher preparation programs do a better job of reiterating the importance of having high expectations for all students, regardless of race. Lara says that isn’t enough.

Schools must ensure “educators come from diverse backgrounds and are knowledgeable about student real-life experiences,” he says, echoing findings that students of color perform better when taught by teachers who look like them. “Show me a well-funded school that respects students’ culture and history, treats teachers like professionals and parents as partners, and I will show you a high-performing school.”