Damning with False Praise
Are teachers asking too little of minority students to help them excel?
Black and Latino students who are overpraised and undercriticized for their work may be victims of a “positive bias” that could hinder their ability to achieve, says research from Rutgers University at Newark. Teachers demonstrated positive bias toward minority students when they were presented with a poorly-written essay—actually written by the research team—and were told that the student who had written it was either black, Latino, or white. Teachers were also told that the student would receive their comments and feedback directly.
As predicted, the teachers provided more praise and less criticism for the subpar essay if they thought the student was black or Latino than if they thought the student was white—a positive bias.
Surprisingly, while teachers demonstrated positive bias toward both African American and Latino students, the reasons for doing so appeared to differ, says lead researcher Kent D. Harber, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers.
Harber, who has been studying positive feedback bias since the 1990s, says that the difference occurred depending on how much support the teachers felt they received from fellow teachers and school administrators.
“If they experienced ample support, teachers did not show the positive bias to African American students,” he tells demodirt.com. “Social support had no effect on feedback to a Latino student; here, feedback was positive regardless of teachers' experienced degree of school-based support.”
Why did teachers only supply positive bias to African American students under those circumstances?
“Social support buffers stress, suggesting that the positive bias to African American students may be stress-related,” Harber explains, adding that his earlier research supports this finding.
White teachers may worry about their own self-images, he notes, making them more likely to change their behavior based on how much social support they receive.
“The more that whites are concerned about their own self-images, the more likely they are to show the positive bias,” he maintains. “In fact, one study showed that we could virtually ‘turn on’ the bias by heightening white teacher trainees' self-image concerns, and could ‘turn off’ the bias by allaying these concerns.”
Positive bias toward Latino students regardless of social support may be related to other factors, such as suppositions that English is their second language or other cultural assumptions, Harber explains.
How can educators avoid demonstrating bias? Normalizing criticism, and framing it as a confirmation of students’ ability to improve is one way, he advises, citing Stanford University findings that showed that minority students respond well to criticism presented this way.
“Teachers may also feel more comfortable supplying critical feedback to their minority students after announcing to all students that criticism is the norm, and that it represents faith in students' underlying abilities,” Harber contends.
Even “blinding” themselves to students’ identities when grading work, and telling students that they do so may help, he adds. “For example, when grading papers, placing Post-its on students' names” may be one way.
However, Harber notes that it is important not to solely focus on teachers, who he says, “are often exceedingly hard-working, dedicated, and self-sacrificing.”
The most effective way to minimize positive bias is to create supportive environments for teachers, the research concluded.
“This research shows that the positive bias occurs in public schools,” Harber says. “The bias might help explain the enduring performance gap between
minority and white students.”
“A direct link between the positive bias and minority student achievement has not yet been established,” he adds. “This is important.”Research was made possible by the Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and, Harber notes, “some far-sighted administrators at the participating districts.”
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