Part 2: Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

During the past week, I have had friends declare on Facebook that they are reasonably intelligent, well-educated white women and yet they had never heard of Juneteeth before this year.  I confess I had not heard of it until two or three years ago myself.

One of the women asked, “When is public education policy going to enter the racism conversation? I’m angry at the things I was never taught in school and am learning now in my 40’s. I am horrified and embarrassed at my own ignorance.”

That ignorance is an example of how racism permeates the U.S. public school system.

Image from News Times article

Last week, I wrote about how the Pygmalion effect creates two distinct school environments for students that teachers unconsciously categorize as “capable” and “less capable”.  I listed student characteristics that contribute to teachers labeling students as “less capable”.  Having black or brown skin topped that list.

I stressed that teachers do this mental categorization unconsciously.  I believe that; yet whether or not the process is unconscious, it is part and parcel of implicit bias.

More information on the Pygmalion Effect and Black students can be found here:

Implicit bias is the term used for the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

Much of implicit bias comes out in the classroom in the form of “microagressions”.  Wikipedia and other online sources define “microagression” as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups “.

Interestingly enough, when doing the research for today’s blog, I found only one article that focused on microagressions in the K-12 classroom.  The rest of the information I found was generated by colleges and attempting to remove these from college classrooms.

Still the lists of sample microagressions are relevant to K-12 teachers!

I recommend the following resources to learn more about microagression and what to do about it:

Implicit bias in teacher behavior is one aspect of how educational experiences are different for white students and Black students in the same school.  There is a persistent gap in academic achievement between white and Black and minority students.  There is also a significant difference in how each group is disciplined.

In some studies on how students are disciplined, Black students, especially males, were ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled for their behavior.  Other studies report the figures as 10% to 16%. 

I submit that part of the reason why Black students receive more hash discipline in K-12 schools starts in the earliest years of schooling.  Children who are viewed as “less capable” by teachers, even though this may be unconscious, have appreciably different educational experiences than do those viewed as “capable”. 

These radically different educational experiences cannot help but affect how children view schooling and how they view their ability to acquire an education.  Immature people do not express their displeasure at how they feel in mature ways.  Instead, they lash out, act out, become sullen, restless, fidgety, and “cop an attitude”. 

I dare say adults would probably resort to being less than well-behaved if we were in similar circumstances.

If you would like to read more about the disparity between how Black and Brown students and white students are disciplined in school, I recommend these resources:

Historians and social studies teachers are likely to say, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Another applicable quote is, “History is written by the victors.”  The origin of the quote is disputed, yet it points out a truth about the perspective of history taught in schools. 

Education within a society is geared towards producing upstanding citizens of that society.  This aspect of school curriculum was much more apparent during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Civics and social studies texts of that time unabashedly promoted the idea that U.S. citizens held certain values and rejected all forms of Communism.

We would like to think our curricula and social studies textbooks today are free of bias, but they are not.

Numerous studies have been done of who and what is examined in textbooks.  These began as early as the 1970s.  These studies showed that people of color were added to textbooks as sidebars, a bit of information that was set off from the rest of the text, and, as a result were often overlooked or skipped as unnecessary.  (Similar “inclusion” can be seen in science textbooks.)

One can only describe this method of inclusion as marginalization.  Literally!

Reading the content of textbooks gives more insight into how “history is written by the victors”.  Not too many years ago, McGraw Hill, a major textbook company, was righteously called on the carpet for describing enslaved humans as “workers” and the slave trade as “migration of workers” to “agricultural plantations”.

Name it and claim it - Comic Strip of the
Textbook labels enslaved people as “workers”

Labeled as outright racism, the textbook company said they would change their online books to more accurately reflect the slave trade, but the in-print books were already in circulation. 

I don’t know about your school district, but the ones in which I worked did not purchase social studies books very often, so I expect those books will be in circulation for some time!

Many schools do not use social studies or history textbooks.  They use multiple resources to meet their state standards.  These resources may be up to the teacher, or up to the curriculum director, or up to the state. 

Another example of history being written by the victors played out in Texas not too many years ago.  A very conservative person became the head of the Texas state level school board.  Under his direction, the state’s social studies curriculum was overhauled. 

The result was

  • Slavery and the slave trade were down-played.
  • The African-American diaspora or any events in history involving African Americans was not mentioned until the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Jim Crow laws and segregation were removed from information on the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was barely mentioned.

Those are just a few of the revisions to history this particular set of state standards made.

If you would like to learn more about how K-12 textbooks whitewash history, I suggest these resources:

So what does all this mean for Black and Brown students? 

One result is the academic achievement gap.  Another is what is referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.  You can read more about that at the Teaching Tolerance website:

The most recent statistics I could find show that 80% of the nation’s teachers are white.  Yet only 44% of K-12 students are reported as white.  This means that the majority of Black or minority children never have a teacher who looks like them.  Research on this phenomenon is very clear:  all students benefit when they have Black or minority teachers.

You can read more about that research here:

[Many factors influence recruitment of Black and minority teachers at the college level.  I won’t go into those in this blog at this time.]

All of the information I’ve touched upon has been the subject of many studies.  It all adds up to the fact that the current way we educate children helps perpetuate the marginalization of African-Americans and minorities.  In other words, our education system as it stands right now supports racism in the U.S.

What can an individual teacher do about it?

First of all, each teacher must search his/her heart and soul and recognize that we contribute to this!  It is not easy to do.  It is not fun.  But it is vitally necessary!

Second, we must address implicit bias, the Pygmalion Effect, and microagressions.  That can mean having some very uncomfortable conversations with our students, our colleagues, administration, and the community.  That takes bravery and a willingness to listen.  However, it takes brave souls to be teachers, so we can do it!

Third, we have to step up to be part curriculum teams.  We need to point out to students that textbooks don’t always get it right.  And we need to promote thinking in our students, not just memorization of facts and figures. 

I believe education is the most important activity in which a society engages because it shapes the future of that society and the world.  I believe educators are the most important part of education.  They can sit back and let others shape education for them, or they can stand up and help do the shaping.

We can do this!  We MUST do this!

Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

I do not know any teacher who consciously discriminates against any student for any reason.  If you ask a teacher, she will say, “I treat all students well!  I want them all to learn!”

In my experience, this is true – all teachers believe they want all students to learn.

Despite this, there is a persistent achievement gap between Black and Brown students and Caucasian students. 

We know for a fact that there is no difference in the brains of people. One cannot tell if a brain comes from a person who is Black, Brown, white, male, or female. While there may be individual differences in a person’s ability to learn, that ability is not dictated by the color of the person’s skin or by the person’s gender.

So what is the issue?

We have known something that makes an astounding difference in the education and IQs of students since 1964.  It is called the Pygmalion Effect or the Rosenthal Effect after the Harvard researcher who “discovered” it.

Elisabeth Caren | Pygmalion And Galatea | 1

In Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor.  He crafted a sculpture of a woman that was so lifelike he yearned to make her his wife.  His belief in her reality was so great that Galatea, as he had named the sculpture, came to life.

What Rosenthal discovered was that when teachers believe children are capable, or even more capable than they have previously demonstrated, they blossom.  Further, the children’s tested IQ increase dramatically.  The greatest increases happened with the youngest children.  In fact, some of the first graders in his experiment increased their IQ by 27 points!

Sadly, the converse is true.  Students whose teachers believed they were less capable fell further and further behind.

This has been studied many times since the 1960s.  It has changed many things about education.  Teachers are taught they must have high expectations.   The coursework required of prospective teachers has increased dramatically as well.  The underlying purpose of these changes is to better prepare the prospective teachers for the classroom, and to ensure that they have the knowledge of subject matter needed to model those high expectations.

The problem is it is not teacher knowledge of subject matter that increases high expectations for students.  It is the teacher’s behavior.

I have listened to numerous teachers in three states talk about students.  None believed they had low expectations.  So how do I know they thought of some students as less capable than others?

Two People Talking Transparent , Free Transparent Clipart - ClipartKey

There are clues in what the educators said.  For example:

  • Her parents just don’t care.
  • He comes from serious poverty.
  • Her family doesn’t speak much English.
  • His home life is really chaotic.
  • She comes from a broken home.
  • He is my behavior student.
  • She is my learning disabled student.
  • We have a very high number of free and reduced lunch students.
  • This is a Title I school.

I have heard all of these statements offered as a reason why a student is not learning.

Yes, none of the situations above are fun, and they can affect students’ emotional well-being.  But they do not limit the ability of the student to learn.

Research has shown that teachers make unconscious decisions about the ability of students.  They categorize them as “capable” or “less capable”. 

The result is that the teacher treats students s/he thinks of more “capable” differently than s/he treats those s/he thinks of as less capable.

Here is a table that shows the behaviors:

Teacher Actions“Capable” Students“Less Capable” Students
Calling on studentsCalls on oftenCalls on less often even when has hand raised
Wait timeGives significantly more wait timeGives significantly less wait time
Types of questions askedTends to ask “thinking” questions; higher level thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questionsTends to ask “recall” type questions; lower level (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions
Allowing correctionsWill prompt student if s/he is wrong Will allow student to correct him/herselfWill move on to another student if s/he is wrong
Praising studentsPraises student for academic-oriented behaviorsPraises student for compliance to classroom rules or procedures
Helping students who don’t understandAsks student prompting questions, for example:  “What do you do first?  Now, what do you do next?  How will you know . . .”Demonstrates how to do task
Does the problem for student (e.g. math)
Gives student answer
Greeting studentsGreets students by name Talks with students about interests and activities Tone of voice sincere, warmMay nod
May not say anything May use backhanded compliment (“I wondered if you’d show up today.”) Tone of voice neutral or sarcastic
Informal conversationsPauses to talk with student about interests or activities Listens to all of student’s storyPauses for conversation less often
Cuts student off Suggests student finish story later
Eye ContactMakes frequent eye contactRarely makes eye contact

In short, the teacher creates a warmer, more welcoming classroom climate for the students s/he has unconsciously categorized as capable, than s/he does for students in the “less capable” category.

Children Having Their Exam

Let me be very, very clear:  rarely, if ever, do teachers do any of this consciously!  Nonetheless, researchers have repeatedly observed teachers engaging in these behaviors. 

I have observed this myself in classrooms from elementary to high school – and in every single case, the teacher was one who worked hard at teaching, who focused on student learning, and who believed s/he treated every student equitably. However, s/he did not do what s/he thought s/he was doing.

Research has pointed out several factors that influence teacher’s thoughts about whether or not a student is capable or less capable. 

  • Having black or brown skin
  • Speaking a language other than English at home
  • Being labeled as having dyslexia or dyscalculia
  • Receiving Title I services
  • Having a 504 plan
  • Having a physical disability such as being hard of hearing
  • Wearing dirty or ill-fitting clothes
  • Having poor hygiene
  • Living in “that” part of town
  • Transferring from a rural or urban school to a suburban school, or an urban school in the “right” part of town
  • Being a member of a different religion or denomination than the majority of students
  • Being less mature than peers, for example, thumb-sucking or crying about hurt feelings
  • Being overweight
  • If male, being smaller than peers; if female, being larger than peers
  • Having parents who are divorced or who have never married
  • Having parents who work blue-collar or pink-collar jobs

If you are like me, about now you are thinking, “OMG!  Am I doing this?  What can I do to change this?”

When I first learned about this research, I looked at the list of behaviors and felt overwhelmed. I could not change everything all at once. So I thought about which behaviors I thought would most likely affect learning.  I decided to focus on how I asked questions.  I put a class list on a clip board and made a tally mark by each student’s name when I called on him/her.  I did this for each of my classes.  (I was teaching middle school at the time.)

It would have been undoubtedly better to ask a colleague to come in and do this kind of tally for me.  If you are in a school with an instructional coach, they may be just the person to help.

What I discovered was that I was calling on some students more often than others!  Worse, when I looked at who I was calling on, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, I asked so-and-so that question because I figured he could answer it.”  Yikes!

Popsicle Sticks and 'Hands Down' are not Cold Call: Key ...

I thought I might force myself to make changes if I had a system to randomly call on students.  I know some teachers use popsicle sticks for this.  However, I felt popsicle sticks had disadvantages.  First of all, the can with the sticks was not as portable as I wanted it to be.  Second, I’d seen some teachers who made a production out of choosing a stick so it was slow.  And last, popsicle sticks seemed too “little kid” for my big middle school students.

What I needed was something that was portable, fast, and would not be offensive to middle school students.

I decided to make a card for every student.  I cut 3”x5” index cards in half and wrote a student’s name on each card. 

At that point I realized that if I had only one card per student, the student was likely to listen only until his/her name came up.  Then s/he would tune out until everyone else was called upon.

I made another set of cards.  This meant that every class had a deck of cards, and every deck of cards had each class member’s name in it twice. 

I taught the students the procedure:

  • I will ask a question.
  • Do not raise your hands.
  • I will give wait time.
  • I will turn up a card.  That student will answer or say pass.
    • If the student says, “pass” his/her name is put into the middle of the deck so s/he knows s/he will be called on again soon.
    • If the student’s answer is wrong, s/he gets a chance to correct him/herself or the card goes into the middle of the deck.

I had my system.  It was portable – in fact it fit into the pocket of my pants or blazer.  I could shuffle the cards in front of the students so they knew I wasn’t targeting anyone.  I could turn up cards quickly.  I used humor with it so those delicate middle school egos were not bruised unduly.

(I enlisted the help of the classes to help make sure I was providing an equal amount of wait time.  But that’s another story!)

You may choose to address a different behavior.  I hope you will share those ideas here!

Teachers can make students think of learning as something worthy and attainable, or they can make students believe they are incapable of learning.  It is easy to do the latter.  We even do that without conscious thought!  It is more difficult to make sure that ALL think of learning as something they can do.  Yet educators can, and must make sure we do this for every single child.  Every.  Single,  Child.

Works Consulted

  • Katherine, Ellison. “Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect.” Discover Magazine. October 28, 2015. (accessed June 15, 2020).
  • Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • Sadkur, Myra, and David Sadkur. Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1994.
  • Spiegel, Alex. “Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform.” NPR. September 17, 2012. (accessed June 15, 2020).