The power of belief as an educational tool


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As early as preschool, teachers rely on harmful stereotypes of Black children. This kind of unconscious stereotyping is called implicit bias. While these biases may be unintentional, the expectations teachers hold for students can significantly affect student outcomes and success. — Education Post

[The Belief Gap] is the persistent and deep divide between what parents believe their children are capable of and what some elected leadership, through word and deed, believe the very same kids can do. – Chris Barbic

While I think that addressing the Belief Gap is necessary, I should say that I do not think it is sufficient in the absence of other large-scale public policy efforts to shrink income inequality, protect the civil rights of students and families, and address entrenched institutional racism. – James Noonan

In a handful or so of previous columns, I have explored what educators and social scientists have come to call “the word gap.” The research in support of the word gap comes from landmark studies at the University of Kansas and Stanford University, which reveal that by the time a low-income child reaches the age of three they have potentially heard 30 million fewer words than peers who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

These findings have huge implications for school readiness and America’s pronounced achievement gap that persists among poor children and children of color.

In recent years a new catchphrase, “the belief gap,” also addresses academic disparities and has gained traction with many teachers, policy analysts, and education activists. As Harvard University researcher and education policy expert Dr. James Noonan notes, the concept of the belief gap has permeated education reform circles — including here in the Twin Cities — for many years but has become even more prominent in the past half-decade.

According to journalist Libby Nelson, an example of the belief gap in practice can be explained like this: “When Black teachers and White teachers are asked to sum up high school students’ potential, White teachers are much less likely to see Black students as college material. And that’s true even when they’re discussing the same students.

This is what former President George W. Bush once referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The belief gap has become a central element in the debate over charter schools versus public schools, and a number of critics have challenged the notion of the belief gap, even deriding it as an attempt to “bolster the stance of reformers.”

Yet, as Noonan and Nelson highlight, the research behind the belief gap is “rooted in empirical evidence.” They both refer to the famous 1968 experiment by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, which is known as “The Pygmalion Effect.”

In this project, the researchers administered IQ tests at the start of the school year to students at Oak Elementary in California. Rosenthal and Jacobson then randomly selected 20 percent of the test subjects and informed teachers that the students in this group “could be expected to outperform their classmates.”

When the academic year was completed, their research found that these students in fact did “outperform their peers, suggesting that teachers may have viewed these students differently and treated them accordingly.”

Many subsequent studies have further validated the research of Rosenthal and Jacobson, including data published in American Psychologist, Demography, Education Research and Review, The Society for Research in Child Development, and The Future of Children, among numerous other journals. An editorial in the Twin Cities Daily Planet cited examples of elementary schools all over the nation where the “belief” of parents, teachers, and administrators has made an indelible impact.

One such school is George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama, where more than 90 percent of the student body is poor and African American. In 2004, less than half of Hall’s students were exceeding the minimum standards. However, by 2011, with some effort, determination, and, of course, belief, 94 percent of students at George Hall were performing in the “advanced” range.

As the Twin Cities Daily Planet profoundly reveals: “If you scan the national education landscape and ask ‘what works’ you’ll find successful schools focus on what they can control. They reflect on what they can change and then change it. They use data to quickly adjust their practices.

“Their staff redesign schools to fit the needs of the children they serve rather than conveniences that serve themselves. More than anything, they believe that all children can thrive academically. In their worldview, demography is not destiny, and equity is more than a boilerplate.”

Now, as Noonan warns above, belief in and of itself is not the only element in the struggle to achieve educational equity. There are still the complicated issues of social and educational policy, the need to reduce racial and economic disparities, the defense of human rights, and the dismantling of systematic racism. But belief, it would seem, is a start.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104