The “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations” Quantified?

Rutgers just put out an interesting study in which teachers were asked to provide feedback on a student essay. Some teachers were told the student-author was white, while others were told he or she was black or Latino:

In fact, there was no actual student, and the poorly written essay was developed by Harber and his team. The real purpose was to see how teachers would respond to subpar work due to the race of the student who composed it. As [lead researchers Kent D.] Harber and his team predicted, the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias,” providing more praise and less criticism if they thought the essay was written by a minority student than by a white student.

An important aspect of the positive bias was that it depended on how much social support teachers received from their fellow teachers and administrators—but only if the student was black. In This case, teachers lacking social support showed the positive bias, while those who enjoyed support did not show the bias. Teachers who thought the student was Latino showed the bias, regardless of their school-based social support.

“The social implications of these results are important; many minority students might not be getting input from instructors that stimulates intellectual growth and fosters achievement,” notes Harber. “Some education scholars believe that minorities under-perform because they are insufficiently challenged—the ‘bigotry of lowered expectations,’ in popular parlance,” he explains. “The JEP study indicates one important way that this insufficient challenge might occur: in positively biased feedback,” according to Harber.

It’s interesting to stand this up against other research which suggests that minority students are often singled out in the other direction when it comes to disciplinary issues.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.