Home Front

Teachers' bias can limit students' future

Teachers' expectations of students matter a lot to students' performance. Teacher training should address this issue directly.


Seven years ago, I reported on the case of a school principal who advised her students in the Secondary 5 Normal stream to transfer to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). She thought they were unlikely to do well in the O levels and should go straight to the more technical oriented ITE. Normal stream students do their N levels at Year 4. After that, they can go straight to the ITE, or go on to take their O levels at Year 5 and aim to enter a polytechnic if their grades are good enough.

The report came after several upset parents wrote to The Straits Times complaining that their children were being "pushed" to take the ITE route. Some were outraged at the principal's remarks, claiming that they battered the self-confidence of their teenage children.

This practice still continues, going by the recent e-mails I have received from some parents.

After the N-level results were released two weeks ago, four parents wrote in asking if their teenage children should take the advice of their teachers and apply for the ITE, although the parents clearly preferred the O-level route.


The parents also complained that some teachers had affected the self-confidence of their teenage children. One upset parent, a housewife, said: "My daughter had done well and was celebrating her good results. So imagine the form teacher then telling her that she is unlikely to do well in the O levels. That she might as well save one year and go straight to ITE."

As I told the mother, the teacher probably had the student's welfare at heart.

In 2008 - the year latest figures were made public - the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed that 40 per cent of Normal stream students do not do well enough in the

O levels to qualify for polytechnic studies. In the end, they have no choice but to head to the ITE.

But going by the accounts of several parents over the years, some teachers clearly have low expectations of their Normal stream students and what's worse, they express this to their students.

I wonder if teachers are aware of the powerful effect that their expectations have on their young charges.

The first psychologist to study this was Harvard Professor Robert Rosenthal who, in the 1960s, did an experiment at an elementary school in San Francisco.

The idea was to see what would happen if teachers were told that certain students in their class are likely to succeed. So the professor took a normal IQ test and told the teachers that the test from Harvard was able to suss out which pupils were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

After he gave the test to all the students at the beginning of the school year, he selected 20 per cent of them randomly. Then he told the teachers that these were students who showed "unusual potential for intellectual growth" and could be expected to "bloom" in their academic performance by the end of the year.

Eight months later, he re-tested all the students. Those labelled "intelligent" showed significantly better results in the new tests than those who were not singled out for attention.

"If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ," said Prof Rosenthal of his finding.

But just how do teachers' expectations lead to gains in IQ?

As further studies done by Prof Rosenthal showed, a teacher's expectations affect his interactions with the students he teaches in many ways. Teachers give the students who they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval. Even their body language is different - they consistently nod and smile at those kids more.

Several other studies that followed confirmed Prof Rosenthal's study.

One recent notable one was done by the Centre for American Progress which analysed data from the Educational Longitudinal Study that tracked the progression of a group of 10th grade - 16-year-old - students from 2002 to 2012 in the United States.

The study found that all else being equal, the students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations. In other words, the expectations of teachers showed a very strong predictive relationship with college graduation rates.

In fact, teachers' expectations were more predictive of college success than many major factors, including student motivation and student effort.

The study also found that teachers expect less of children of colour and those living in poverty. That, in turn, affects school success for the very students who need teachers who believe in them and strive to lift them up.

Locally, only one study has been recently published, linking teachers' expectations of their students' performance to their mathematics achievement.

The study done by two National Institute of Education (NIE) researchers compared the performance of close to 6,000 Sec 2 students in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to their teachers' perception of their competence in mathematics.

The study of 5,927 students from 165 schools in Singapore included a questionnaire which asked students to rate statements like "my teacher thinks I can do well in mathematics" and "my teacher tells me I am good in mathematics". This was used as a measure of their teacher's expectations, and compared with their achievement in the TIMSS test.

The same study also tracked 7,556 students from 277 schools in Australia. Whether in Singapore or Australia, the results showed that if a teacher believed his or her students were competent in mathematics, then the students were more engaged, had a more positive attitude towards the subject and performed better in it.


So if expectations can shape student outcomes, how do we get teachers to have the right expectations? After all, teachers are only human. Is it possible to get teachers to control their expectations or change their beliefs?

Some teacher training programmes tried changing the expectations of teachers by providing them with information, showing that the beliefs they have of some groups of children were wrong.

But some such as Professor Robert Pianta from the University of Virginia have argued that teacher training programmes need to go further and train teachers in an entirely new set of behaviours.

He found this out through a study of two groups of teachers. He assessed their beliefs about children, then gave one group a standard course, which included information about appropriate beliefs and expectations.

The other group received intense training, which taught them a whole new set of skills based on those appropriate beliefs and expectations.

The teachers videotaped their classes over a period of months and worked with personal coaches who helped change their behaviour.

After that intensive training, the beliefs of the trained teachers had shifted way more than the beliefs of teachers who were given a standard informational course.

Prof Pianta subsequently came up with several ways that teachers can use to strengthen their relationship with students and change their own expectations. For example, teachers can observe students to find out their interests, engage them in non-academic activities, and practise how to respond to their students' problems.

This is something that should be included in the teacher training programmes conducted at the NIE. Get both trainee and in-service teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and look at how they can change their behaviours to counteract the biases during their lessons in the classroom.

Just last month, the MOE announced that it was extending its one-year training programme for degree holders to 16 months. MOE said the additional four months for the Postgraduate Diploma in Education will be used to provide more hands-on practice in the classroom and extra courses in areas like educational psychology.

Going by the mounting evidence of the effect of teachers' expectations, it is critical for teacher-preparation programmes to set aside time to cover this topic in depth. We just have to think of the teachers who made an impact on our lives, to understand the power of a teacher's expectations. Often they are the ones who believed in us and gave us the extra lift when we needed it.

Often when children lag behind, educators shrug their shoulders and point to their student's home background or lack of innate ability. But the increasing volume of research now suggests that poor student performance is linked to teachers' own low expectations.

Teachers must be given the appropriate training to correct their biases, what some policymakers have termed the "soft bigotry of low expectations". This way, they can then set their own expectations right, and help our children aim high.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline Teachers' bias can limit students' future. Subscribe