The Social Construction of Expectations

Consider this a postscript to yesterday’s post about the unequal prosecution of the drug war, and the effect of that disparity on public attitudes toward African-Americans.

A few days ago, a Brookings Institution study confirmed what many of us have suspected–

The 2015 recipient of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Teacher of the Year Award, Shanna Peeples, recently spoke about the importance of teachers believing in their students—and imparting their expectations to students—particularly students who doubt their ability to succeed academically. Students have similar feelings and frequently report favoring teachers who “believe in [students’] ability to succeed”. Teachers’ expectations may either counteract or reinforce negative expectations held by traditionally disadvantaged students who lack access to educationally-successful role models. To date, however, little is known about how teachers form expectations and whether their expectations are systematically biased.

Along with colleagues at American University and Johns Hopkins University, I begin to address these questions in a recent study. We find evidence of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students. Specifically, non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. …

For example, when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.

There is a fair amount of research confirming the belief that teachers’ evaluation of student capacities affect student performance. (This will hardly come as a shock to those of us who are parents.Kids live up–or down–to our expectations.)

It bears repeating–again–that these disparities in expectation are not evidence of conscious racial bias. I’d be willing to bet that most of these non-black teachers genuinely care about all of their students, whatever their ethnicity or skin color.

These lowered expectations are reinforced by multiple, ingrained cultural messages–they are part and parcel of social attitudes that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is: how do we change those attitudes? How do we train teachers to base their demands for student performance on more appropriate criteria than skin color?


  1. I based my expectations on the student’s (black or white) willingness to to come to class, have the appropriate material for that class, and do the assigned projects whether they wanted to do it or not. I was one teacher with from 30 to 36 students per class and 5 classes a day. I really did not have time to think about whether he or she was white or black. I saw the results!!! 19 years of teaching at an Indianapolis high school!

  2. Very interesting. I am interested in reading comments from any current or former teachers that read this blog to see if they are aware of this and might have an idea why it happens.

  3. Students are not the only people “conditioned” by expectation; so are we all, including educators. We can choose to accept them, or challenge them. We need help in doing either. While we may be able to see why, or how, or when, or even who certain expectations might probably affect in our students, it is consistently the expectations of everyone else involved in the educational system (parents, community, administrators, etc.) that we miss ourselves–and especially our own. Our justifications/rationalizations left unchallenged become “hard wired” after a few teaching terms.

    It is one thing to establish expectations of our pupils in the classroom, but do they survive outside the classroom? How about our own? How about over time? We, as educators can get “beaten down” by reality–perceived or otherwise. Yet, we have within our midst a support system that can help us survive, long term. We have each other. I know, it sounds insane, right?

    Yet, it is true. Championing our students is one of the most difficult, and most gratifying parts of our task. It’s also one of those “Yeah, but…” conversations that occur on much (for my view) too common occasions. When it comes to looking at our own expectations of each other, and holding to account those who fail themselves, and their students in this challenge, everyone loses. Teachers, staff, administration and boards burn out. Students drift off into forever, and we know they lack certain intangibles to succeed. We also know some of those things are missing because we failed to insure students have them when leaving our classrooms.

    We see it happening. We know why. We don’t do anything, or enough. We find ourselves having to battle even more and we get tired. In those educators who lack these fundamental requirements, it is our job to help, not hinder. We can save each other, especially where our expectations are concerned. Sometimes, we do. Most times, we just don’t. We should. This is the value lesson our students should leave with. To me, this example in reality is one we should/must champion ourselves–for ourselves. Where we come from, or where we are is, like for our students, not where we must be. It is not some edict from some “on high” source.

    As for our pupils, the future of us all, it is for us to constantly guard, defend, and champion the incredible, even the impossible. It is not enough to just try. Is that the lesson we want our fellow citizens and future leaders to walk away with? No. Not for me, anyway. “From where you are, to your most amazing potential, is the journey you and I, today, are on. Repeat daily.

  4. Education and therefore teaching is how society prepares for the future knowledgewise. Critically important stuff. Teachers though are made of the same stuff as the rest of us. We live, experience and judge. It’s what we do.

    One judgement is same or different. Boys vs girls. Fit vs unfit. Social vs retiring. Funny vs serious. Lazy vs ambitious. Athletic vs clumsy. Student vs slacker. Smart vs slow. Black vs white.

    Teachers naturally like those who are easy and fun to teach. Motivated. Smart. Curious. Some are hard to teach. That’s why teaching’s work.

    We are all immersed in a stew of turmoil. Bad things on the news every day. And we live, experience and judge based on that.

    We each are part of the mix.

    To me a critical part of teaching/preaching/parenting is imparting tolerance. Give folks the benefit of the doubt. Risk a little. Give a little. Be open to second impressions.

    Just like with math and English some teacher student combinations are successful exceeding that hurdle, some much less so.

    Learn it at home, in school, in church, or not until life knocks you around a little, but learn it.

    But democracy only works when a majority are tolerant people and can empathize with those who are different as well as the same.

    The American Dream is suffering from a crisis of tolerance. It could be argued no worse than always but it seems our progress towards increasing empathy has slowed. We’re stuck.

    Getting unstuck is necessary if we’re to have a successful future. Teachers are part of the force to model tolerance and teach empathy.

    But, it takes a village to raise a child so we all have a role to play in that.

  5. Great comments Bud Fields. Would it help if school boards helped set up a support system for their teachers? And if it could help do you think the boards would consider funding for this?

    I realize that for students to succeed they need support and encouragement at home. It must be stressful for teachers to know that certain students may not be able to succeed due to a lack of support at home.

  6. irvin; there have been times when someone else has posted a comment while I am typing mine. Din’t know it is there till I posted my own; don’t jump so quickly to think you have been ignored…except by our on line disciple of misinformation.

    I remember few teachers; my 5th grade geography teacher, Mrs. Goodus, told the class that due to the miniscule changes of the earth on it’s axis, one day far in the future Indiana’s weather would be that of Miami, Florida. I’m sure she was referring to natural Climate Change, having no inkling of Global Warming in the future. I gave up waiting for Florida sunshine here long ago. I do remember loving geography class.

    I remember my high school biology teacher, Mr. Barr, who talked to and treated students as intelligent young people with potential to learn. He instilled wanting to learn in us; he made no difference between black and white students. That included those who could call him at home with problems outside of schoolwork.

    I remember the English Grammar teacher my junior year, Jean Welles, who strutted before the boys and answered their questions. She was one of two teachers who blatantly ignored black students. Don’t remember what I asked that she responded, “That is the dumbest question I have ever heard and you are the stupidest student I have ever tried to teach.” She didn’t instill a need to learn grammar in me. One of the boys in the class stopped me after class offering to tutor me. Very smart, honor student, he happened to be black. It was total embarrassment that made me refuse his kind offer; sorry I never got to explain my reason to him. The next I knew of him was a few years later when he was being carried out of the State House by police for leading a sit-in during the civil rights movement. Later an article in the news reported he was in Africa with the Peace Corps…he didn’t let racism of a white teacher during the mid-1950’s keep him from succeeding.

    Home situations with or without encouragement dictate much of the success or failure of students; also the availability of newspapers, good books, magazine and keeping abreast of all news via TV at home plays a part. We are facing the culmination of many years of poor educational opportunities for blacks as well as the overt or covert racism exhibited by teachers. The level of education financial support continues to dwindle; in the Indianapolis Star today an article, “New state budget cuts school safety grants”. So, along with lowering the quality of education, the questionable provision of necessary bus transportation to assigned schools, now the physical safety of students has been moved to the bottom of the list. “Honest to Goodness Indiana” are vouchers actually worth these losses?

  7. I cannot determine what any individual may or may not do in evaluation but I would think that teachers like others suffer the same implicit biases others suffer. When I see statements like – I didn’t have time to see black or white- I immediately become suspicious. Perhaps that’s correct. But it would be a first or near first. It’s not that the intention isn’t there or that the motivation is lacking. It’s the way the brain categorizes and processes data. I certainly do not want to disparage teachers or any person here. I’d rather challenge the assumption that intention and/or motivation is sufficient to overcome the implicit bias the rest of Americans suffer.

    That said, I don’t think our measures are sufficient or precise. Because we fail to measure bias in an adequate way, in fact reject it actively saying, “Not Me” we continue our merry way to error and damage.

    This is historically true of other students, most easily seen by doubters perhaps in gender, but also any number of physical disabilities in those who have no mental or emotional impairments at all. In fact these same students may have specific advantages not recognized.

    That points out the inability to see or reluctance to see and accordingly expect success in many attentional, perceptive or creative responses to difference or even recognition within the “different.” Our lack of sufficient effective methods in teaching, reaching or engaging those different from us – our inability to imagine ways in which to make that stretch – often due to a desire to standardize for group needs rather than any individual needs – is significant.

    This is unsatisfying as a response as it doesn’t address the needs of either students or teachers but perhaps consideration is helpful and I have no doubt many better approaches exist. I speculate they are often rejected on economic or training grounds.

  8. Al, the topic was,is, about bias. Of course I saw that it was a black kid or a white kid who walked thru the door but I did not see him/her , black or white as a learner or non learner.

  9. IMO, teaching’s easy. Motivating is hard. And teaching and motivating are part of virtually every job. Especially parenting.

    It seems like Sheila’s point, expectations, is a consequence of teacher frustration at motivation difficulties. It’s tempting to give up because motivating is hard. Lower expectations rather than fight the battle.

    The better teachers, parents, workers, and bosses are the ones who tend to view motivating others as a challenge to rise to because they don’t view the problem or the people as intractable. Those that lower expectations instead give up on their ability to teach and the others ability to learn motivation.

    Teachers can’t replace parents who have given up. Are not motivated enough to take on teaching motivation. Parents can replace teachers who have given up.

  10. All of these philosophical statements are fine but until you have experienced the frustrations of trying to accomplish what is expected and required, philosophy isn’t worth the words used to express it.

  11. Why are we putting all of this crap on the teachers? You would think that they are the ONLY expectation influence in a child’s life. How about all of the expectations put on children by their parents and relatives even before the little ones get through the schoolhouse door? Some little tykes are beaten down before they even learn to write their names. Here’s what I say, “We don’t have an education problem in this country. We have a parent problem.”

  12. “The question is: how do we change those attitudes? How do we train teachers to base their demands for student performance on more appropriate criteria than skin color?”

    This is funny. This is liberalism at its end. You have the most liberal of all people becoming teachers. The public school teacher is the most hard-left person walking around.

    If this group of hard leftists can’t see beyond skin color, it’s time to accept the physiological truth that race is a deep and inextricable component of one’s being.

    Can you “train” someone not to flinch if his foot is exposed to a flame?

  13. Expectations at home can make a huge difference in the life of students. When parents are indifferent or outright hostile to teachers, either from cultural or personal experience, students bring those expectations to school with them. It takes an exceptional teacher to recognize the obstacles that those expectations present and to formulate strategies to overcome them.
    Respect is the underlying component that has not been addressed. Maybe if teachers demand respect in the classroom, not just for themselves but of the students for each other, expectations can be changed for the better.
    Several years ago, a teacher and her class came to the bookstore where I worked for a field trip. The most striking thing about the class was not its racial and gender diversity, it was their kind and respectful treatment of each other, their teacher, chaperones, store staff and merchandise. When I remarked on this to the teacher, she explained that respect was a core value that she insisted on in her classroom. She, in turn, showed that same respect to the students and their parents. She communicated with parents personally as soon as she recognized a need. If she got no response from the parent, she got her administrator involved to insure the problem was addressed in a way that would be in the best interests of the student and the parent/guardian.
    Her efforts were showing how change can be effected, attitudes and expectations formed in a positive way.
    I know she was dealing with 30 students and not 150 each day. If we start with her methods in grade school, the end results may be to make expectations more positive for everyone when they enter high school.
    This is just an example of one way to approach the issue. I offer it from personal observation of the results. The work, time and organization to reach the results were, I am sure, significant and required cooperation and compromise by all the adults involved. The students were the real winners in the end.

  14. I see several teachers here…and others who were influenced by teachers, whether those teachers were good or less than good. We who are/were in the fray understand. It takes parents, administrators, counselors, the community at large, the religious institution, and the student himself or herself! If everybody is engaged in the child’s growth and learning, good things will happen. No, it isn’t easy!

  15. Pete said:

    “One judgement is same or different.”

    But he offers no evidence.

    Pete also said:

    “Give folks the benefit of the doubt.”

    But he again gives no evidence.

  16. In my 25 years of teaching in colleges and universities, I saw it all—from lowered expectations of parents who wanted to “get rid” of their kids by sending them off to college, to the brightest and best learners. The students at the low end of totem pole of learning were a challenge, to say the least, and they were the most needy of any of my students. But to me as their teacher, their role model, their confidante, I could have cared less where they came from, or what color of skin they bore, but I was most concerned about where they were going…..what was going to motivate them, how I could help them learn when learning was so difficult for them, sometimes because of parents, and sometimes because of teachers. I encouraged them, I fought for their rights, I put myself on the line for them with the administration. I did this because I loved teaching—every day of their lives was important to me because it was important to them, even if they didn’t realize it was. They used to tell me that “I held their feet to the flame, but I was always fair.” That is the highest compliment a teacher can receive. I miss teaching now that I am retired, but I am still in touch with many of the students who I was privileged to mentor along the way.

  17. Freshman Daughter. Speaking of attitudes! How many classes if inner-city high school student have you ever taught?

  18. Katie Parrish – Thank you for being a teacher that cared and gave your all to your students. I am sure you were the favorite teacher of many students and they knew you cared enough about them to do all you could to educate them in the best way possible.

    KUDOs to YOU!

  19. My children attended a Montessori magnet school where many parents slept overnight on the sidewalk in front of the school district office to get their children into the school. As a compromise for housing the magnet school, which had been moved around the district, was required to take 40% of its students from the local impoverished multicultural neighborhood.

    The teachers, who had been used to teaching students from education oriented families, were now forced to teach classes whose makeup included kids who might not even have a book in their home. Helping in the classrooms, I could see that It was challenging; some teachers handled it well while others had difficulties with the spread.

    I can see how easy it would be to have unconsciously lower expectations for people who don’t have the same background as I have.

  20. I worked for teachers state-wide for nearly 40 years and have found them to be generally more conservative than the population at large; very conscientious and responsible; and workaholics – because they have to be to survive the very draining task of being a constant motivator to all types of children all day, every school day.

    Indiana University’s school of education provides instruction on cultural competencies to help teachers understand students from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. I attended one of their workshops sponsored by Indiana’s Black Legislative Caucus, and their instruction was a real eye opener and SO helpful. Every teacher should have the opportunity to learn what seemingly normal rules, comments, and practices ‘push the buttons’ and/or conflict with their students’ backgrounds and HOW to build instructional and character-building bridges across such differences with respect for all intact.

    Several years ago, the Elkhart school community reported that their students spoke 77 different native languages. (I doubt I could think of 77 different nationalities). Some of those children came from a culture which had no written form of expression. Imagine the task of the teacher trying to teach and reach students (and their parents) who have no concept of pencil and paper, books, libraries, homework, permission slips, report cards, etc. Imagine the culture shock of the parents and students. Imagine trying the manage the expectations of all involved.

    The good news is that there are strategies to help current and future educators understand and apply best practices to the complicated stew of our American melting pot in American classrooms. Unfortunately the State of Indiana has lowered teacher licensure standards so that learning HOW to teach has become a distant second to learning WHAT to teach. Professional development funds for those already teaching to improve their teaching skills have virtually disappeared. The best teachers have learned BOTH what and how to teach.

  21. Like all professionals teachers range from bad to wonderful. Unfortunately and unlike most professions teachers have never settled on an evaluation system that rewards the best.

    Evaluation systems are hard for all professions but necessary.

    I think that figuring out a system for teachers will be the next step forward for education.

  22. Pete, what is/are the evaluation systems for doctors, lawyers, dentists real estate agents,etc, etc, etc?

  23. For most of them evaluation is done by clients based on satisfaction with their services. With some working for big practices it’s based on somewhat the same measure but measured by business brought in. A bad lawyer/doctor/dentist will not be able to maintain a good enough reputation to grow business. Of course some work in corporations where they’re subject to the same process as other professionals.

    A shorter answer is how any individual fairs against competition.

    I’ll admit that evaluating teachers is hard but that doesn’t make it any less important.

    I think that Drs who save lives vs dispense treatments are subject to some of the same evaluation difficulties but hospitals especially are working to solve that difficulty.

    To whatever degree that evaluation is not or can not be done everyone in the profession will be regarded as average.

  24. Pete, as a one time IPS teacher we were evaluated by our department head every three years and our chief administrator every 5 years more or less. That was a part of our contract. We did not object, however department heads and administrators had their favorites and non-favorites. Productivity was not always a major part of the evaluation.

  25. Irvin, not sure how the people who rated you got info about your effectiveness. Was pay matched to performance?

    Observation seems to me necessary to supplement testing of students and also some input about class makeup. Like portion Sp Ed.

    As I said this am motivation is the hard thing to deliver and also to measure.

  26. Pete, I was observed for one class period once every three years and maybe one class period during a 5 year span. Pay? We were under a contract, but you could be docked. Of course that awful commie IEA came to your defense if that happened.

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