Underachievement and Teacher Bias.



Let me start with the Rosenthal effect or more commonly known as the Pygmalion effect, this is where the observer or teacher expectancy directly impacts on pupil outcomes. This is a widely accepted concept in education, although the research underpinning does have its issues (that’s for another blog).

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)

That means if I expect that a pupil will perform better, I will act in a way that makes that behaviour more likely. The converse is also true.

The golem effect seems, unfortunately, to be not only more frequent but also more powerful than the Pygmalion effect. (Eccles and Wiglfield)(1). Pupils will react to what teachers think about them, what teachers expect from them.

Do teachers have lower expectations for certain groups than others? I can hear the protestation through the screen. “I treat all pupils the same. I have high expectations for all my pupils.”

Do teachers expect more of certain groups than others?

Babad et al 1991 people of all ages respond immediately to both verbal and nonverbal behaviour of teachers based on what they expect from a student. While speaking to researchers about their students, teachers used verbal cues to relay how they felt about pupils. Although while in front of those very same pupils non-verbal cues were used to display the level of expectation of that student. Words are fickle as teacher actions in the classroom will uncover their true expectation of the people.

Let us all just reflect on that for a minute. The way you act verbally and non verbally based on your preconceived notion of that pupil will impact onthe outcomes for that pupil. If that preconceived notion is biased we are likely to impact negatively on those groups.

Do you as teachers expect more of certain groups (including race/ethnicity) than others?

‘Especially along socioeconomic and racial lines (which are to a large extent linked) gaps in both educational opportunity and educational achievement persist in our supposed democratic, egalitarian society.’  H Adams

David Burgess and Ellen Greaves look at the teacher assessment vs actual attainment of external exams of 11-year old across 16557 schools, 3 subjects and 4 years. This showed that the past performance of a specific ethnic group directly impacted on the current teacher assessment.

Bias is a habit of the mind. To judge every single person on their merit is incredibly exhausting and time inefficient. [Burgess and Greaves’] approach suggests that a teacher will categorise students and create prototypes or exemplars to make conscious or unconscious judgements about future students of the same group. (Chang & Demyan, 2007) show that teachers hold these exemplars or stereotypes, and show that they differ across ethnic groups.

It is worth stating the Key stage 2 SAT are marked quasi-blind i.e. with the name of the pupils, this may skew results negatively towards external marking, implicit bias along the lines of race should lower the results of externally assessed pupils as a result. How precisely the opposite was found; Pupils of certain groups were assessed lower than others.

‘We have shown that there are enduring and significant differences in teachers’ assessments of pupils from different ethnic groups. On average, the Black Caribbean and Black African pupils are under-assessed relative to white pupils.’

Those of us who serve homogeneous groups of white pupils this is even more important as Burgess and Greaves found the stereotype factor was more important in schools where that group is relatively scarce.

Tables of data


Ethnic group TA < External Exam Difference compared to White pupils Percentage discrepancy compared to White pupils
White 12.4% 0.00% 0.0%
Black Caribbean 17.2% 4.80% 38.7%
Black African 18.3% 5.90% 47.6%
Pakistani 20.2% 7.80% 62.9%
Bangladeshi 18.1% 5.70% 46.0%
Indian 13.8% 1.40% 11.3%
Chinese 13.3% 0.90% 7.3%

In English, all pupils who do not ascribe to the white label have a higher percentage of teachers assessing them lower than the external test. The rate at which Pakistani pupils are underassessed (vs external SATS) when compared with white pupils is at a rate of 62.9%.


Ethnic group TA < External Exam Difference compared to white pupils Percentage discrepancy compared to white pupils
White 7.90% 0.00% 0.00%
Black Caribbean 10.20% 2.30% 29.11%
Black African 10.60% 2.70% 34.18%
Pakistani 11.90% 4.00% 50.63%
Bangladeshi 11.20% 3.30% 41.77%
Indian 8.40% 0.50% 6.33%
Chinese 6.00% -1.90% -24.05%


Ethnic group TA < External Exam Difference compared to white pupils Percentage discrepancy compared to white pupils
White pupils 13.60% 0.00% 0.00%
Black Caribbean pupils 17.30% 3.70% 27.21%
Black African pupils 16.90% 3.30% 24.26%
Pakistani 19.20% 5.60% 41.18%
Bangladeshi 16.50% 2.90% 21.32%
Indian 13.80% 0.20% 1.47%
Chinese 10.60% -3.00% -22.06%

Interesting that pattern is repeated in Maths and Science, barring the Chinese group.

Are we, as educators, letting our own bias,

  1. Create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the pupils we serve?
  2. Impact on how we treat these pupils?
  3. Influence behaviour (Is there a link between these expectations).


  1. H Adams http://smartfuse.s3.amazonaws.com/e2c7482630406945015caf56704f2890/uploads/2016/12/Golem-affect.pdf
  2. Test Scores, Subjective Assessment and Stereotyping of Ethnic Minorities. Simon Burgess and Ellen Greaves http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/cmpo/migrated/documents/wp221.pdf
  3. “Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher Affect and Efficacy.” College Composition and Communication 46 (3): 369-386. https://www.jstor.org/stable/i215235


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