Cruel to be Kind?

Black and Latino Students Suffer When Teachers Give Too Much Praise

A new study indicates that public school teachers may be failing to challenge minority students, giving them more positive feedback and less criticism than they give to white students, for work of equal merit. The study, led by Rutgers University psychology professor Kent D. Harber and published in the April 30 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other working class and racially mixed.

Teachers read and responded to a poorly written essay, which they believed was composed by a student in a writing class. Some teachers thought the student was black, some thought the student was Latino, and some thought that the student was white. Teachers believed that their feedback would be sent directly to the student, so that the student could benefit from their comments and advice. In fact, Harber and his colleagues had written the essay and were using it to see if the race of the student affected the way that teachers responded to subpar work. As predicted, the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias,” giving more praise when they thought the essay was written by a minority student and more criticism when they thought the student was white.

Positive feedback bias may be one explanation for the academic performance gap between minority students and white students, according to Harber. Through the years, studies have examined other factors that contribute to this performance gap, including inequalities in school funding, racism, and a distrust of academia in some minority communities.

“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,” says Harber, in a recent Rutgers University news release. “Some education scholars believe that minorities under-perform because they are insufficiently challenged—the ‘bigotry of lowered expectations,’ in popular parlance.”

What do you think? Can praise be a disguise for lowered expectations? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

 

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