Teacher Perceptions Matter.

Teacher perceptions matter. In conducting research on teacher perceptions of intelligence, race, and socioeconomic status in relation to genetics, I am driven by a body of research showing that teacher viewpoints more strongly affect students of color and students living in poverty; they disproportionately and adversely affect students considered to be ‘at-risk’–namely low-income students and racially-defined minorities (Bennett, 2017; Li, 2016; Peterson et al., 2016; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). Alongside this body of research, scholars have looked at how school organizational structure and teacher perceptions reinforce or disrupt these socioeconomic (Diamond, Randolph, & Spillane, 2008; Rist, 1970) and racial (Sebastian Cherng, 2017; Van den Bergh et al., 2010) achievement gaps.

Teachers interact with and perceive students differently depending upon their race (Irizarry, 2015; Muller, 1997; Oates, 2003; Rist, 1970; Sebastian Cherng, 2017; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). A reason for the differential treatment of students on the basis of race could be that implicit racial associations inform teacher perceptions of their students (Warikoo, Sinclair, Fei, & Jacoby-Senghor, 2016). Differential perceptions and treatment of racially-defined minority groups have been shown to impact student achievement (Allen, 2017; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Blanchard & Muller, 2015), most notably in math (Blanchard & Muller, 2015; Muller, 1997; Oates, 2003; Peterson et al., 2016). For instance, in a study of 38 teachers in New Zealand, Peterson et al. (2016) highlighted a connection between a teachers’ implicit and explicit biases towards a group and how well that group performed academically. Teachers with explicit high expectations had students who performed better in reading, regardless of their ethnicity, but teachers with implicit prejudiced attitudes negatively predicted student performance in math, particularly those from Maori ethnic backgrounds.

Findings have consistently observed that teachers have significantly lower expectations for the educational attainment of racially-defined minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups of students (Boser, Wilhelm, & Hanna, 2014; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016).

In an observational study of an inner city American school, Ray Rist showed how a kindergarten teacher placed students into reading groups that “reflected the social class composition of the class”; these groupings were durable from kindergarten throughout the first few years of elementary school (Rist, 1970). His work is supported by that of Diamond, Randolph, and Spillane (2008), who noted that the concentration of low-income Black students in an urban elementary school in the United States corresponded to a leveling of teachers’ expectations of students and a decrease in their perceived sense of responsibility for student learning. Both these studies highlight the intersections of race and class to shape teacher expectations within an organizational habitus that reflects the wider social context. The role of socioeconomic status in mediating educational attainment and educational expectations carries over internationally. In a global study, Parker, Jerrim, Schoon, & Marsh (2016) found that between-school academic stratification was associated with stronger relationships between socioeconomic status and the educational expectations of students. Socioeconomic status differentials in educational opportunity were more pronounced in countries that had ability or curricular stratification in their schools, suggesting that in countries with high stratification “children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds may have their educational expectations more strongly determined by achievement, often at a relatively young age, leaving less room for agency and choice processes” (Parker, Jerrim, Schoon, & Marsh, 2016).

Furthermore, teachers’ expectations and speech vary in accordance with a student’s ethnic background (Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). A meta-analysis in the United States by Tenenbaum & Ruck, (2007) found that American teachers had the highest expectations for Asian American students and had more positive expectations for European American students than for Latino or African American students (Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). These expectations corresponded with the rates at which teachers made positive or negative referrals for students. Teachers directed more positive and neutral speech towards Europeans American students than towards Latino and African American students (Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). These perceptions also inform teacher referrals for gifted education and special education (Fish, 2017), spaces in which racial minatory and low-income groups are underrepresented (Card & Giuliano, 2014; Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, National Research Council, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, & Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences, 2002; Ford, 2014; Morgan et al., 2015). In the United States, African-American and Latino students are less likely to be referred for gifted education programing by their teachers (Allen, 2017; Erwin & Worrell, 2012). These same groups of students are under-identified for special education after individual background characteristics and school contextual factors have been controlled for, despite the fact that teachers appear more likely to perceive that African American and Latino students have a form of disability (Cooc, 2017).

While there are negatives to teacher expectations which disproportionately affect historically underserved student communities, teacher perceptions can also have positive impacts. Positive teacher perceptions improve students’ preparedness for college (Blanchard & Muller, 2015). Blanchard and Muller (2015) used data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative survey of high school students in the United States, to show that when teachers expect students to complete college and perceive them to be hardworking, children are more likely to secure higher GPAs and to advance to more accelerated math classes. Unfortunately, Blanchard & Muller also found that teachers tend to form negative associations with stigmatized groups of students, including immigrants or English Language Learners (ELL), and are less likely to expect them to complete college (Blanchard & Muller, 2015).

These studies demonstrate that teachers’ perceptions vary depending upon the race of their students. They have used surveys, meta-analyses, interviews, and case studies to show how teacher perceptions and treatment of students vary in accordance with race. Findings have been consistent with one another, validating the conclusions.

These findings have caused me to reflect on my own experiences in the US education system, particularly with gifted education. I have a fairly unusual background–one which resulted in living portions of my childhood in Eastern Europe. Coming back to the US for the start of middle school after having lived in Ukraine I was automatically placed into ‘regular’ classrooms despite the fact that I had been enrolled in ‘honors’ courses abroad. My family simply assumed that this was all that was available–it was not until a teacher partway through my first year back asked me if I found all my classes as easy as his that I came to realize there were other options (coincidentally this was a teacher of color). Could it have been a lack of awareness on the part of my parents coupled with teachers who assumed I was incapable of achieving more upon first glance that resulted in my predicament? This educational experience hindered my chances of being accepted into a magnet school as I had not taken any academically accelerated courses at the time of my application. Of course, I was extremely privileged to even be in that situation and had parents who made sure I read- introducing me to “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” in the sixth grade. For students without parents with the time/energy/resources to advocate and fight for them, they can easily fall through the cracks. This is yet another reason why teachers are so important–why they matter. Teachers can advocate for their students when no one else will and in a space that is perceived to be an ‘equalizing institution’ which means that their actions can go along way–the alternative is the perpetuation of the status quo.

However, I’ve been blessed with fantastic teachers just as much as I’ve faced ones who told me “I’d be lucky if I get into college.” There was my 3rd grade teacher who remained my pen pal for three years when my family moved to Ukraine. There’s my tenth grade English teacher who broke with the standard curriculum and insisted on having us all read the books that had been banned by the state of Virginia. There’s my eleventh grade psychology teacher who continues to remain in touch and who helped me to pilot my qualitative research design. There’s my high school Latin teacher who painstakingly re-wrote popular songs to help us remember our declensions or Roman history. These teachers have stayed with me and had invaluable impacts on my subsequent decisions in academia. They mattered for me.

In “G is for Genes” Asbury and Plomin write: “the ability to learn from teachers is, we know [based on findings in behavior genetics], influenced more by genes than by experience” (p. 7).  What does that mean? What does this say about teachers working in a profession that is already severely undervalued? How can we make teachers, who we know matter a lot for how students achieve and see themselves, matter in our society when reputable scientific researchers seem to be saying they matter less than we think?

What do you think? What teachers have significantly impacted your life, either negatively or positively?

2 Comments

  1. I believe teachers (and coaches who
    in a sense are teachers), have an undeniable, significant impact on their mentees. They don’t just teach whatever their subject, they create experiences. Alas, experiences form us, send us on a path which can be detrimental or beneficial. I have had some phantastic teachers, who recognised potential and have given me skills and opportunities, and are the ultimate starting point for some of the things I do and am good at. I had teachers and coaches who did damage although as you get older you will be able to see what was wrong there and you can maybe learn from that for your own tracking. I have seen what (to friends and myself) a bad teacher, a bullying one, has closed gaining skills forever and even as grownups this holds you back. Teachers form your next version of yourself. I strongly believe that within being teachers/mentors/coaches lies a great responsibility and opportunity.

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    1. I agree completely! I worry that 1) in undervaluing our teachers we send the message that they don’t matter, when so much tells us they do. 2) behavior genetics researchers that say things like “the ability to learn from teachers is, we know [based on findings in behavior genetics], influenced more by genes than by experience” (Asbury & Plomin, 2013, p. 7). We once again say teachers don’t matter. Not only that, what does a statement like that mean in terms of accountability? So thankful for many of the teachers I’ve had who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself!

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