Are Teachers Lavishing Black Students With Too Much Praise?

A study led by Kent D. Harber, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, concludes that public school teachers “under challenge” Black students by providing them more positive feedback than they give White students for work of equal merit.

Researchers gave a poorly written essay to 113 white middle-school and high school teachers. The essay was written by the researchers but subjects were told it was written by either a White, Black, of Hispanic student in a writing class. The subjects were told to critique the paper and that their review would be given directly to the student.

The results showed that the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias.” The teachers provided more praise and less criticism if they thought that the student who wrote the essay was Black or Hispanic.

Dr. Harber says, “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. Some education scholars believe that minorities underperform because they are insufficiently challenged — the ‘bigotry of lowered expectations’ in popular parlance.”

The study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, can be purchased here.

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  1. The sad saga of low expectations continues. Shiny new curriculum, better assessments, and so on are no match for deeply ingrained ideologies and belief systems that hold Black students inferior. The problem with educational reform is that it will forever be mitigated by the fact that “attacks” on teachers is really a gendered and racialized attack. Demographically, teaching in the U.S. is primarily the work of White women, upwards of 85%. Reform will forever skirt that issue and the beliefs that many teachers have about “minority” students. Of course, not all White teachers are like those in the study and not all African American, Asian, Latino, or Native American teachers are stellar themselves. However, teachers who hold these low expectations for Black students need to be pushed out of teaching. No time for developing multicultural competence and culturally relevant pedagogy. The stakes are too high for spending time rehabilitating teachers (of all racial backgrounds) who are doing damage to Black children.

  2. What is really sad about this practice is that it has been going on for a LONG time. I first heard of it back in the 1970s. In a way, the White teachers are caught between a rock and hard place–if they’re in any way critical, they’re perceived as being racists; if they give praise, they’re accused of pandering. Surely, there must be White teachers who know how to constructively criticize Black students!

  3. Yes, this has been going on for a long time. I first noticed it when I was in graduate school in the late 1960s. If a white student said something stupid, the professor would challenge him to back it up, but if a black student said something that needed to be challenged, the same professor would say something inane like, “Way to go, Man.” I remember challenging the professor, but he just looked embarrassed.

    A year later, I was an instructor at the same university. When I went to the department chair, asking what to do about a black student who could barely write, she advised me to “just give him a D” which I did.

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