However Well Black Students Perform, Teachers Still Think They're Struggling

Teachers are twice as likely to say their classes are "too difficult" for black students as they are for whites.
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Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at New York University, has written thousands of pages’ worth of research and commentary over the course of his career. But growing up, his teachers gave him no reason to believe he would end up in this position. As an Asian-American student living in Maryland, he consistently ran up against stereotypes suggesting that he should be uninterested or incompetent in English language arts.

In elementary school, Cherng was placed in remedial English, even though there was no evidence he needed it. When he won a high school poetry contest, he said, an English teacher reacted with indifference.

He attributes the behavior to stereotypes that Asian students are foreign-born, and thus at a disadvantage in English language arts. Instead, teachers expected Cherng to excel in math, even though that’s a subject in which he would have appreciated extra help.

“I was born in the U.S. and having many English teachers assume I wasn’t interested in the topic or that I wasn’t good at English, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cherng said. “At the end of high school, I thought I wasn’t good at writing.”

Because of Cherng’s experiences, he was less than surprised at the outcome of his latest research looking at the relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement. Stereotypes about students’ race and class affect how math and English teachers expect students to perform, even after taking students’ test scores and rates of homework completion into account, according to the research.

Math and English teachers are significantly more likely to think their classes are too difficult for black and Latino students. English teachers also have lower expectations for Asian students. This, in turn, negatively affects these students’ expectations of themselves.

Black students, in particular, bear the brunt of low expectations. Compared to white students, math and English teachers are more than twice as likely to say that black students cannot handle the difficulty of their classes.

However, black students do not shirk these academic challenges, even in the face of bias. Overall, students’ grades are negatively impacted by teachers’ underestimations, per Cherng’s research. However, black students’ grades do not suffer as much as those of other groups, even though they face heightened prejudices. These results suggest a “narrative of resistance,” in which black students work extra hard to prove their teachers wrong, according to Cherng.

“In an optimistic way, it’s a problem we can solve. If we change things like how we train teachers... I think [it] could make a world of difference.”

- Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at New York University

“If a student is in a classroom and can sense a teacher thinks poorly of them, black students in particular may resist that narrative, resist fulfilling that narrative, and within the classroom may be able to fight it,” Cherng said. “This could translate as not being as harmed as other students in the short term or medium term.”

In the long run, though, these biases can be devastating. Black students hold harsh views about whether or not they can succeed in higher education.

“The longer-term consequences on things, like whether or not they think they can go to college, it takes years to form these ideas,” Cherng said. “In that sense, it’s a more subtle influence that can actually hurt black students more than other students.”

To glean his results, Cherng used data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, which surveyed 10,000 high school students and their teachers. This survey asked teachers about their expectations of students, which Cherng then compared to students’ expectations of themselves and their GPAs.

While the results are depressing, Cherng says they also give him reason to hope.

“In an optimistic way, it’s a problem we can solve,” he said. “If we change things like how we train teachers, if we change things like making teachers able to acknowledge that they have biases, I think [it] could make a world of difference.”

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