LET Expectations, bias make a difference in performance

By Judith Puncochar and Kathy Brutinel

According to an editorial in the August 26 Post-Bulletin, the Rochester School District is wrestling with a significant student achievement gap among racial groups. The Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., reported that 88.5 percent of white students and only 38.4 percent of black students passed the Minnesota Basic Skills math test. The reading gap was worse with 81.6 percent of white students and 28.9 percent of black students passing.

A survey of letters to the editor shows how easily people point their fingers at minority students and suggest that the achievement gap resides within the minority students and their families: They come to school unprepared …; they don't try…; they don't care …; their parents don't care.

Attitudes and efforts are important, of course, but everyone finds success easier when expectations, stereotypes, and prejudices are with us rather than against us.

All of us grow up in a culture that determines how we think about and interact with other people. Every culture has its inherent biases, including the dominant culture. Humans are fast processors of information, so we use mental shortcuts, stereotypes, and expectations. We are not bad people because we process information quickly or rely on cultural expectations.


However, if the Rochester community wants everyone to achieve their potential, then all of us must learn to recognize bias and treat people fairly. The community must not place blame before addressing the processes that keep some students from equal access to quality educational programs and learning experiences.

The processes involved in the racial achievement gap are complex, but one process that can compromise student achievement is the effect of low expectations and stereotypes. For example, research has found that teachers demonstrate differential treatment toward students in classes labeled as low ability as compared to students in classes labeled as high ability, when actually the students have the average range of abilities. When teachers were told that the students in the classroom were low in ability, the teachers tended to prepare less material and to wait less time for answers than when they were told that the students were of high ability. These teachers didn't expect students with the label "low-ability" to learn as much or to answer their questions, whereas teachers expected higher achievement and more answers from students with the label "high-ability."

Stereotypes and expectations do affect student performance. Research also shows that when Asian women were asked to indicate their race at the beginning of a math test, they performed significantly better than when they were asked to indicate their gender. When black students and white students took an identical golf test, white students missed more golf shots when they were told that the test measured "natural athletic ability," and black students missed more golf shots when they were told that the test measured "sports intelligence." Performance anxiety about stereotypes is no excuse for failure, but all of us know that success is easier when people believe in us.

The influence of our expectations is not always subtle. High expectation students quickly find themselves in gifted and advanced placement classes, programs, or job opportunities, while low expectation students and English language learners might find themselves in lower-level classes and jobs, regardless of their actual aptitude. Managers tend to give more praise and less criticism to their high expectation employees than to their low expectation employees.

We stifle the growth of students and employees based on our often non-conscious assumptions about their ethnic or racial groups. Holding on to our preconceptions and adhering to social norms is quicker, easier, and safer than examining our personal biases. In a progressive community like Rochester, however, we should step back to examine our personal and community biases before we hold minority students and their families solely responsible for a math and reading achievement gap.

The Rochester School District and teachers are working hard to reduce the achievement gap and to decrease biases, stereotypes, and prejudice in schools. Teachers attend the Professional Growth Academy and develop teaching strategies that contribute to the success of all students. Students and teachers develop skills through the Diversity Council's Prejudice Reduction Workshops to resist the effects of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, and to think critically about bias.

Nonetheless, closing the academic achievement gap cannot succeed without the support of the entire community. Schools do not operate in a vacuum.

Rochester students live in our neighborhoods and experience the expectations and biases of community members and society as a whole. The entire community must work with the schools to welcome diversity!


Diversity is an asset -- not a barrier -- to student achievement. Our communities must encourage every individual's success, diversity, education, abilities and effort, and not give in to the influence of public or private negative stereotypes and expectations.

Judith Puncochar is director of the Human Relations Program at the University of Minnesota. Kathy Brutinel is on the Board of Directors of Rochester's Diversity Council.

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