Teachers’ lower expectations for Maori students are self-fulfilling prophecy

Maori boyTeachers’ expectations of students have been shown to have a significant effect on student performance and achievement.

In a recent study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, University of Auckland researchers found that teachers’ expectations for their Maori students were lower than for three other groups–New Zealand European, Pacific Island, and Asian–even though achievement for Maori students and other groups were similar at the beginning of the year.

“Teachers’ expectations for students in reading were significantly higher than actual achievement for all ethnic groups other than Maori,” the researchers conclude. “Maori students’ achievement was similar to that of the other groups at the beginning of the year but, by the end of the year, they had made the least gains of all groups.”

Ethnicity and socioeconomic class

A large number of student characteristics have been identified as possibly influencing teacher expectations including gender, ethnicity, social class, diagnostic labels, stereotypes, physical attractiveness, language style, personality and social skills, etc.

In the U.S., many researchers have studied the discrepancies between teacher expectations and performance for white and African American students. But it has been difficult to separate out the effect of ethnicity from that of social class, say the researchers.

For the study, 21 teachers were surveyed about their expectations for the reading levels their students would achieve by the end of the year. Teachers completed the survey one month into a new academic year to allow them adequate time to become familiar with the students.

The study comprised two middle class ethnic groups (New Zealand European and Asian) and two ethnic groups predominantly from a lower socioeconomic class (Pacific Island and Maori).

Teachers completed another survey at the end of the year that asked them to judge their students’ achievements. Both surveys were based on a 7-point Likert scale (1=very much below average and 7=very much above average).

One aim of the New Zealand study was to isolate the effects of ethnicity by studying teacher expectations and student performance for four ethnic groups instead of only two groups. If teachers’ expectations were related to social class rather than ethnicity, the researchers hypothesized, then teachers’ expectations for Maori and Pacific Island students would be similar since these students came from similar lower socio-economic areas. But the results show that the teachers were more influenced by ethnicity, the researchers say.

“Teachers had expectations for the achievement of Pacific Island students that were similar to their expectations for the achievement of New Zealand European and Asian students and yet the achievement of Pacific Island students at the beginning of the year was substantially below that of both New Zealand and European and Asian groups,” the researchers note.

Home-school congruence

At the end of the year, teachers judged the achievement of Pacific Island students to be similar to that of New Zealand European and Asian students even though their achievement was substantially below that of these groups, the researchers say.

One explanation for these different expectations, the researchers speculate, is that teachers may have beliefs about the students’ families and values about education.

“Pacific Island students are believed to come from homes where there is strict discipline, where church and family are important but where parents care about their children and their education,” explain the researchers. “Maori students, on the other hand, are believed to come from families where education is not valued and where parents are not encouraging of teachers’ efforts.”

Limiting learning opportunities

These beliefs may lead teachers to alter their teaching practices and thus to limit learning opportunities for the student.  For example, when teachers have low expectations they may slow the pace of lessons and create more structured environments to control behavior.

“It may be that Maori students were given learning opportunities that maintained their achievement at similar levels throughout the year, while the other groups were provided with more challenging learning opportunities that significantly augmented their achievement,” the researchers say.

Home-school congruence has been shown to be an important factor in student achievement, they point out. “When school reflects different values, beliefs, and understandings to the home, this can have detrimental effects on student adjustment to school and subsequent success within the school environment,” the researchers write. Teachers may see students’ home background as a barrier and deficit and therefore may take less responsibility for student learning, they explain.

The ethnicity of the teachers was not taken into account which is a limitation of the study. The researchers note that there were three Pacific Island teachers in the study located in schools with larger numbers of Maori and Pacific Island students.

“In a climate where several nations have introduced policies aimed at improving the academic results of ethnic minorities, teachers should be encouraged to examine their beliefs, stereotypes, and consequent expectations to see if these could be variables that ultimately affect students’ life chances,” the study concludes.


“Expecting the best for students: Teacher expectations and academic outcomes” by Christine Rubie-Davies, John Hattie and Richard Hamilton,  British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 76 2006, Pp. 429-444.

Published in ERN January 2007 Volume 20 Number 1

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