Students Pin Achievement Gap on Teachers with Low Expectations

Published October 1, 2004

In the recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Towards the Public Schools, three of four Americans (74 percent) attributed the achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students to factors other than schooling. When asked about who was most important in determining how well or how poorly students performed in school, 45 percent said the students’ parents, 30 percent said the students’ teachers, and 22 percent said the students themselves.

Several other recent surveys of teachers and students indicate schools and teachers, not parents, are the major contributors to the achievement gap. Drawing on extensive interviews with high school students in Connecticut, New York, and Washington State, researcher Christopher Unger of Brown University’s Education Trust found many schools did not give students a vision of their potential. This is particularly a problem for low-income children from the inner city or in rural areas who often don’t have an idea of their own possibilities.

“High schools don’t give students the sense that they can make their life what they want–if they pursue their dreams and interests–rather than have life happen to them,” Unger told Education Update, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Even when students do have higher aspirations, their perspective often is not shared by teachers. A recent statewide survey of academic expectations in Rhode Island found black and Hispanic students had higher hopes for their future than they thought their teachers had. While 74 percent of black students thought they would go to college, only 64 percent said their teachers held the same view. With Hispanic students, the figures were 77 percent and 68 percent respectively.

“It’s almost as though the kids are telling us that we need more faith in them,” Julie Wollman-Bonilla told Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg. Wollman-Bonilla is interim dean of the School of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College.

In July, West Virginia’s Education Alliance made a significant contribution to the study of the achievement gap with the publication of a report titled, “Student Voice: West Virginia Students Speak Out About the Achievement Gap.” The report details the results of a series of focus group interviews in which white and black low-income high school students from urban and rural school environments were asked what they thought schools should do to close the achievement gap.

The student responses make it clear they believe the achievement gap is largely the result of actions of teachers and other school personnel.

The researchers found that while teachers, counselors, and administrators provide support and encouragement to some white students, helping them feel their futures are bright, they do not do the same for other students, particularly rural low-achieving whites. As a result, these students have no meaningful vision for the future and little is expected of them academically. Black students face similar neglect plus a variety of other challenges, including racism, verbal abuse, and exclusion from academic enrichment opportunities.

“Even in 2004, racist sentiments and actions appear acceptable among some white students and school personnel, particularly in rural schools,” notes the introduction to the report.

The West Virginia students said improved achievement would come from having:

  • teachers who care about them;
  • teachers with clear instructional goals;
  • teachers who use a variety of instructional strategies;
  • teachers who use hands-on learning activities;
  • math teachers with better teaching skills; and,
  • tutors as well as classroom instruction.

In addition, the students want teachers to stop:

  • showing favoritism among students;
  • insulting and verbally degrading students;
  • using profanity;
  • judging and discriminating against students based on their race; and,
  • leaving the classroom for extended periods of time.

“I feel that teachers try to set you up to fail,” said one black student. “[T]hey talk bad or they don’t encourage you or they just don’t care … it seems like they want us to fail.”

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Rick Allen’s article, “Making High Schools Better,” in the August 2004 issue of ASCD’s Education Update, is available online at

Rhode Island’s annual survey on School Accountability for Learning and Teaching is conducted by the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy at the University of Rhode Island. Survey results are available online under “SALT Reports” at

The July 2004 report from the Education Alliance, “Student Voice: West Virginia Students Speak Out About the Achievement Gap,” is available online at