Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. School Factors

      1. Teacher Expectations and Practices

Teacher Perceptions, Expectations, and Behaviors May Put Black Students at a Disadvantage

A leading scholar finds that teachers have different perceptions and expectations for black students than white students. He argues that these differing expectations lead to different teacher behaviors that, in turn, reinforce lower black student performance.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Ferguson, R. F. (1998). Teachers' perceptions and expectations and the black-white test score gap. In C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.),The black-white test score gap(pp. 273-317). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Three key questions motivate a great amount of research on the test-score gap between black and white students:

  1. Do teachers perceive black students differently from white students?
  2. Do they have different expectations for the two groups of students?
  3. Do they behave differently toward black and white students?

If teachers do show a systematic bias between black and white students, why? And, more importantly, what effects might these differences make for the performance of black and white students?

Researcher Ronald F. Ferguson surveys a wide body of research on teacher perceptions, expectations, and behaviors. His question: What does the research tell us?

Do Teachers Perceive Black and White Student Performance and Potential Differently?

The answer to the question of whether teachers perceive the academic potential of black and white students differently is "Yes."

Ferguson says that experimental studies confirm that race is an important part of the information teachers use to form an impression of a student and his or her potential. In one experiment, teachers were asked to listen to a tape of a student's response to a question about their favorite TV show. They were then shown a picture (of either a black or white girl or boy) that was supposed to be a picture of the student speaking (but was not necessarily). The teachers were then asked to rate the taped responses for personality, quality of the response, current academic abilities, and future academic potential. Ferguson says that the outcome of this experiment showed that there was a highly significant relationship between the race of the student in the picture they were shown and their estimation of the student's response and academic abilities.

Ferguson says that this sort of racial bias may stem not from any dislike of one group or other on the part of the teacher (that is, the teacher is not necessarily "racist") but may simply be conditioned on the teacher's previous experience with different types of students. That is, if a teacher's experience tells them that, all else equal, black students tend not to perform as well academically as white students, then they are likely to use that experience in forming expectations of new students. Additionally, if a teacher knows that a student has performed poorly in the past (as black students are disproportionately likely to have done), then he or she may be basing his or her predictions of how a student will perform on factors other than race, but that still have racially biased outcomes.

Expectations and Behaviors

Do teachers have different expectations for black and white students? Does this cause them to behave differently toward black and toward white students? Again, Ferguson says, the answer to the question of whether teachers have different expectations for black and for white students is "Yes." He also says that research supports the contention that teachers behave differently toward black and toward white students.

The question of why teachers may have different expectations may come down to a student's past performance. Studies show that teachers are pretty accurate in their assessments of how a student will perform in their classfor both black and for white students. After getting to know a student for only about a month in class, and having access to the student's past performance, teachers are often fairly accurate in their prediction of how a student will be performing in their class at the end of the year.

In and of itself, the fact that teachers can predict how a child will perform in their class is not necessarily troubling. Ferguson says that this prediction becomes a problem when the teacher's expectation itself affects the student's performance. He says that research shows that a teacher's expectations for a student does affect the student's performance. Interestingly, he says this is more true for black students than white students.

The question is, why would teacher perceptions affect student outcomes?

Ferguson says that there are a number of explanationssome centered on teachers and some centered on students.

Why Might Teacher Expectations Affect Student Outcomes?

Teacher behaviors: Self-fulfilling prophecy

Ferguson says that there are several possible reasons why a teacher's expectations might (wittingly or unwittingly) affect the way a teacher behaves toward a student. He says that research shows that teachers tend to be less supportive of black students on average, perhaps because they have lower expectations. Because teachers are less supportive, they may actually help to cause the low performance that they already expect. Ferguson calls this a "self-fulfilling prophesy."

But why would teachers tend to be less supportive of black students? Ferguson discusses three different explanations:

  1. Teachers perceive that young black students are less willing to put forth effort to succeed academically. Ferguson says that research shows that the largest differences in perception of student effort between the two groups occurs early in the elementary years. As students get older, teachers begin to perceive more similarity in the level of academic effort that black and white students put forth. However, the early perception that black students put forth less effort in their school work can affect the students' future educational experiences.
  2. Low-performing black students may be perceived as "more difficult" than low-performing white students and so receive less teacher support. Additionally, higher performing black students may be perceived as "less difficult" than white students and so receive more teacher support. Ferguson says that research appears to support this view. "Difficult" students can be a hassle and distraction for teachers. Rather than spend their time attending to "trouble-makers,"teachers might prefer to spend time teaching students whom they perceive to be willing and interested in learning. Ferguson says that he believes "that on average, teachers probably prefer to teach whites, and on average they probably give whites more plentiful and unambiguous support." (pp. 298-299)
  3. Black students may be at a disadvantage because of the "mismatch" between student and teacher race. In other words, black teachers may be more likely to give black students more support and attention than white teachers would. Ferguson says that this does not appear to be a central problem in the way teachers treat black students. In fact, he says, black teachers also appear to have similarly low expectations for black students.

Perhaps teacher expectations cause teachers to prefer teaching white students. Ferguson says that these possible explanations still do not tell us how much of a difference teacher preferences make for student outcomes.

Student behaviors: Who do students seek to please?

It is not merely the actions of teachers, but the ways that students react to these actions that also provides a link between teacher expectation and student outcome. Ferguson notes that a teacher's expectations do not carry equal weight with all students. Some students care more about what their teacher thinks, while some care less. What is significant in the context of black and white students' performance is that research shows that black children more often seek to please their teachers than white children. White children, by contrast, appear much more concerned with pleasing their parents. On the basis of what Ferguson says, then, we might expect black students to be more apt to live up (or down) to their teacher's expectations than white students.

Why would black students try to please their teachers more than their parents? Ferguson notes some research that indicates that black parents often communicate more ambivalence or less commitment to a school's mission than white parents. If black parents do communicate more ambivalence about schooling, then the expectations of black children's teachers may take on a special significance.

Student behaviors: Stereotype effect

Ferguson notes that another possible reason that black students may underperform is what is called the "stereotype effect." Ferguson notes recent research that finds that high-performing black students at elite colleges perform less well on tests when they know that their race is taken into account. That is, black students did less well on a test when they were asked to provide information on their race than when they were not asked about their race. Ferguson says that one explanation for this result is that students' test performance may be disrupted by anxiety. Students feel anxious because they do not want to confirm the generally held belief that blacks cannot perform as well. If the anxiety is high enough, students may try to distance themselves from the importance of the test by telling themselves that it really did not matter much anyway.

Student behaviors: Peer effect

Ferguson notes that when stereotype anxiety is shared by a group of black students, this may impact peer culture in such a way that a black student's peers may come to distance themselves from academic achievement generally. They may come to associate academic achievement with "acting white" and deride their high-performing black peers. Ferguson notes, however, that some research discounts this as an important effect for explaining the black-white test score gap. However, Ferguson disagrees with the findings of this study.

The Bottom Line

What does Ferguson conclude about these disparities in teacher expectations and perceptions?

". . . stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority are reinforced by past and present disparities in performance, and this probably causes teachers to underestimate the potential of black children more than that of whites." (p. 312) "My bottom line conclusion is that teachers' perceptions, expectations, and behaviors probably do help to sustain, and perhaps even expand, the black-white test score gap." (p. 313)

Research Design:

Research Questions

How do teacher perceptions, expectations, and behaviors relate to the differences in academic achievement between white and black students?

What can be done to break the link between teacher expectations and student performance for black students?

Data and Procedure

Ferguson essentially carries out a detailed literature review, drawing on a wide range of research studies. His goal is to provide an overview of what is currently known regarding teacher perceptions, expectations, and behaviors and their relationship to black student academic performance.

Funding Source

Not given.


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