Overcoming the self-fulfilling prophecy

Dec. 20, 2001, midnight | By Elizabeth Green | 19 years, 5 months ago

Perceived stereotypes cause some minorities academic stress, others reduced motivation

As the bell signals the end of a late November 5B lunch, Jennifer Occean, a sophomore with green eyes and mocha skin, sighs. "I don't want to go to class," she breathes out, running her hands through her hair as she tightens her ponytail. She doesn't want to, but she'll go—she always does and, most likely, she always will.

"Why should I skip," she asks coolly as she collects her belongings, "if they're teaching me for free?"

Before leaving, Occean identifies another motive for her near-perfect attendance. She, as a minority female with a blend of black and Hispanic heritage, thinks she has something to prove. Occean declares, "I'm trying to do good and show them that I'm not like any other minority." Them? "You," she tells her white interviewer.

She means to say, all white people.

"I don't want them to say, ‘She's not going to do anything, she's gonna stay home, she's gonna have ten babies and live on welfare checks,'" she continues, recounting an attitude she believes is widespread among her white teachers and peers.

This mentality, wherein minority students perceive stereotypes as existing against them, has a name, according to Stanford researcher Claude M. Steele. Steele terms it the "stereotype threat," and his research indicates that it does threaten achievement. As minority students try to avoid falling into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy, he has found that their anxious efforts to succeed can deter academic success.

According to Judith Docca, state president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators and a former Blair administrator, low teacher expectations are one of the major factors responsible for MCPS's yawning and ever-controversial achievement gap, which in 2001 saw white and Asian students score about 200 points higher on the SAT than their black and Hispanic peers.

Nearly three-quarters of Blair's black and Hispanic student populations—groups that comprise over 50 percent of the student body—are prone to the stereotype threat, according to an informal Silver Chips poll of 100 minority students. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed report having had a teacher who they believe expected less of them because of their race.

"Put your hand down"

Junior Rodrigo Guevara doesn't hesitate to declare that "of course" some teachers expect less of him because he is Hispanic. "Since you're Spanish, they don't think you're as smart as some of the white people," he says. "Some teachers assume, ‘Oh, because he's Spanish, he's probably going to be skipping my class in about a week.'"

The kinds of impressions Guevara describes as routine can be destructive to a student's chances at academic success, according to Docca. "Teachers are very important. It's really devastating when a teacher doesn't believe in a student and a student perceives that," she says. Especially, she adds, for black students, for whom she says teachers' perceptions hold greater weight than their peers' opinions.

And from her days at Blair, Docca is confident that some high school teachers don't believe in their students. But she
emphasizes that the problem starts in elementary school.

The first place where sophomore Brian Victoriano remembers feeling antagonized by a teacher is his sixth grade classroom. Over and over again, as the teacher asked questions of the class, Victoriano, one of four black students, raised his hand.

But to no avail. "She looked at me like, ‘What are you doing? Put your hand down,'" he describes. Then, he didn't know why his teacher treated him badly. Now, he guesses his skin color had something to do with it.

Docca cites an American University study as proof that Victoriano's guess could very well be accurate. For the study, researchers Myra and David Sadker visited elementary schools and asked teachers to identify the students on their class rosters who they believed were gifted.

Fifty percent of the time, the researchers found, teachers misidentified their students' academic talent levels based on race, gender or family background.

This tendency toward false identification early on, Docca says, bears grave consequences for the rest of a student's educational career. In short, once minority students have been unjustly grouped, they'll remain unjustly grouped.

Sophomore Rachel Butler, who is black, says she is an example of a student who was deemed low-performing by teachers because of her race. At her MCPS elementary school she was one of three minority students in her class. She and her two dark-skinned peers, she says, were placed in the bottom-rung ability group without ever being tested for their abilities.

Lowered expectations like those Butler experienced, Docca believes, are racist and must be combated. She says that MCPS, under the helm of Superintendent Jerry Weast, is trying to do that.

Docca points to two initiatives as specifically targeting the problem of race-based teacher expectations. Because Montgomery County recognizes the importance of elementary-level education as the starting point for equal-opportunity education, efforts by Weast to decrease elementary school class sizes will be key in bridging the achievement gap, according to Docca. In his proposed fiscal year 2003 MCPS budget,

Weast requested $1.9 million for similar elementary-level improvements.

Docca also believes that a teacher-training initiative created two years ago to reach all of the school system's 10,000-member teaching staff is a promising addition. Among the goals of the initiative is raising teacher expectations for all students.

Fighting back

Sophomore David Rondon is trying to combat stereotypes from the other side of the classroom. He does it, he says, by succeeding.

Likewise, 47 percent of minority Blazers who have perceived racial stereotypes against them say these perceptions only make them work harder, according to the Chips poll. "There's always going to be people in the world that think that you can't do certain things," Rondon says. "But I'm not going to cry about it. I'm just going to prove them wrong."

Steele says this desire to one-up the type-casters by exceeding their expectations can be detrimental to some minority students' academic achievement. As they struggle to outperform stereotypes, students' anxiety levels rise, he says, and as a result their performance suffers.

But some never reach the point of anxiety. Victoriano, although he sometimes does put extra effort into his work with hopes of defying odds, says he also often succumbs to a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. "Sometimes, I do what they think I should do," he says. "If they think I'm not going to do the homework, I don't."

The Chips poll found that 42 percent of students who report having had a teacher who harbored lower expectations for them because of their race also report that these lower expectations injure their work ethic.

Some school nights, as Victoriano sits at home weighing the pros and cons of completing his homework, he says a teacher's classroom conduct can tip the scale. "In the back of my head, I'm thinking, ‘Earlier today the teacher gave me a look that made me think I wasn't going to do it,'" he says. And so, often, he won't.

As much as there is that stifles Victoriano from achieving, he says there is something that he can turn to for motivation.

A bulletin board in his room boasts an array of academic awards he says inspire him.

If he does his work, he reasons, maybe he'll get another award to pin up. Then, he says, "I can show it to my son when he's my age."

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Elizabeth Green. Elizabeth Green is seventeen years old. She is also happy to take on the position of editor-in-chief of Chips this, her senior, year. In fact, she has so enjoyed her forays in high school journalism that she is thinking about pursuing a career in the … More »

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