African-American Students Thrive When Teachers Set High Standards For Excellence

September 12, 2013  |  

A new study has found that African-American students can reach high levels in school when teachers set high standards. According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, students who have teachers who push them to show their stuff academically may do better in school and feel less stereotyped as underachievers, reports

The study, published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, contradicted a common trend in education of praising students for mediocre work to help raise self-esteem prior to delivering critical remarks. “That method may seem patronizing and could backfire and lower self-esteem, especially when white teachers praise African-American students,” lead researcher David Yeager, told the website.

There were three studies that were conducted at suburban and inner-city schools, and in those studies it was found that African-American students improved their grades after receiving a simple, one-sentence note from their teachers or an online pep talk.

The first study was conducted at a suburban public middle school in Connecticut, in which 44 seventh-grade students (22 African-American and 22 white) wrote an essay about a personal hero. The essays where then graded by their teachers for improvements in a second draft. Students were randomly assigned to two groups; the experimental group received a handwritten note with their critiqued essay that stated, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.” The control group received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

“For African-American students who received the high-expectations note, 71 percent revised their essays, compared to 17 percent in the control group. The findings were even more pronounced for African-American students who had reported low trust in their teachers in surveys, with 82 percent revising their essays in the high-expectations group, compared to none in the control group,” notes

In the second study, conducted the following year with a similar group of 22 African-American and 22 white seventh-grade students, the research went further by analyzing grades for the revised essays. In the high-expectations group, 88 percent of African-American students got improved grades on their revised essays, compared to 34 percent in the control group. And more than two months after the exercise, African-American students who had received the high-expectations note also had higher levels of trust in their teachers.

Finally, a third study with 50 African-American and 26 white students at a New York City public high school where most children lived in low-income households, included one group of students who watched online testimonials. These testimonials included photos of older students and their advice that academic criticism resulted from teachers’ high standards and their belief that students could reach them. One control group saw online testimonials with very vague statements about teachers’ motives, while another control group completed puzzles.

During the next 10 weeks, African-American students in the high-expectations group earned higher grades across four core subjects—math, science, English and history.

Long story short, if you show kids that you believe in their ability, they’ll show you what they’re capable of.

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