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February 12, 2019

Changing expectations in educational outcomes for African American students

Our expectations for students don’t just correlate with achievement, they have a direct impact on it. How we view a student’s potential directly influences their performance.

Over the years, there have been many changes and improvements in the educational landscape for African American students. But while progress has been made on some fronts, the road to educational equity is still far from over. In honor of Black History Month, we consider how we can improve educational opportunities and prospects for African American students by setting a high bar for achievement.

A long history of civil rights activism in education persists today.

Tackling issues as systemic as educational inequity take time and concerted effort to change. Along the way, countless leaders in the African American community have advocated for change in educational opportunity for their communities.

In the 1950’s, Septima Poinsette Clark, an educator and civil rights activist, developed literacy workshops to aid in the fight for voting rights. Psychologist Edmund Gordon was one of the first educators to focus on closing the academic achievement gap for black students, publishing an impressive 175 articles on diverse pedagogy throughout his career. More recently in 2012, Barack Obama instituted the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, including the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, bringing national attention to the need for change.   

There are adjustments in attitude that we can all adopt and incorporate into our daily lives to spur a cultural shift towards greater educational outcomes for black students.

It starts with expectation.

Education Post’s, “Getting Real About Education,” series includes a conversation with black parents, teachers, and students about the belief gap. One young woman reflects on how expectations impacted her self-view:

I see you have faith in me, and I have faith in myself, and that shows me that I can actually be somebody.



When we believe in the capacity of students to achieve, time and time again, studies have shown that students will rise to meet those expectations. The importance of this change rings especially true for black students who have been met with disproportionately low expectations.

The UNCF United Fund report Building Better Narratives in Black Education recognizes the need for changing conversations.They call for moving away from deficit-based narratives, towards potential reform and opportunity. This view is supported by the Black Child Development Institute in their report Being Black is Not a Risk Factor which asserts that one key change lies in how we approach the problem. In 2014, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans highlighted that high standards and the support of caring adults are key components to reaching educational equity.

When students feel supported and encouraged, they grow to expect more from themselves.

When mentors believe in a student’s potential, the positive influence can be far-reaching, especially for students of color who are more frequently exposed to negative narratives that lead to self-doubt. Here are three strategies to build the high expectations young students deserve:

1. Avoid bias  –  Implicit bias can be ingrained in how we view the world. This form of bias can appear as subconscious stereotypes which affect how we interact with different students. Oftentimes, bias manifests unconsciously for the individual. That’s why it takes a conscious effort  to be aware of society’s (and our own) assumptions and counteract these biases when they appear. Studies show that teachers often assume young African American boys are more likely to have challenging behaviour. This implicit bias skews how teachers treat certain students differently.

2. Always encourage  –  Promoting positive self-talk can boost the mental health of all students, but especially African American students who may be more prone to have lower confidence based on external factors. Phrases like, “You are a great reader because you always take time to sound out difficult words” and “I’m really proud of you for reading that challenging book”, can give students a big confidence boost.

3. Assume success  –  Set expectations high. Always assume that a student can and will do well, and give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. You might say, “You are such a strong reader, I’m confident you are ready to take on some more challenging chapter books.”


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