To Close the Belief Gap

There is a new buzzword among many who would reform education in this country:  it’s the Belief Gap (or, for the Twitterati, the #BeliefGap).  Although the term has been in the education reform ether for awhile, it came to renewed prominence in a December 2014 op-ed by Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the nascent Tennessee Achievement School District, and it has since been well promoted by the website Education Post.  In his essay, Barbic described the Belief Gap as “the persistent and deep divide between what parents believe their children are capable of and what some elected leadership, through word and deed, believe the very same kids can do.”  In other words, all parents believe their children are capable of great things, but the policies and rhetoric of public officials – for example, rhetoric citing the constraining effect of poverty on student achievement – have had the perhaps unintended but perilous effect of holding many children (especially poor children of color) back. 

Though the notion has received its share of criticism and even ridicule, the essence of the Belief Gap idea is rooted in empirical evidence.  Consider the classic 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen in which they described the “Pygmalion effect.”  In the study, all students in a California elementary school were given an IQ test at the beginning of the year, but then twenty percent of the students were randomly selected by the researchers, who in turn told teachers that these students could be expected to outperform their classmates.  At the end of the year, researchers re-administered the IQ tests and found that these randomly selected students indeed did generally outperform their peers, suggesting that teachers may have viewed these students differently and treated them accordingly.  More recent research on teacher expectations and student success has corroborated Rosenthal’s work.  For example, a 2014 brief from the Center for American Progress found that high school students whose teachers had high expectations of them were also more likely to graduate from college.  

In short, children – and adults – tend to live up (or down) to the expectations that other people set for them.  This is hardly news.  Indeed, it is practically the dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Nevertheless, if our often-tacit beliefs are associated with how we act, then one important lever for improving teaching and learning may be to address teachers’ (maybe implicit but no less powerful) beliefs about their students.  Applying such a tactic takes on added urgency when considering that teachers’ expectations tend to be closely tethered to students’ race or socioeconomic status, with lower expectations (and even racist preconceptions) heaped on poor students and students of color.

I find this argument convincing.  Beliefs matter, and where beliefs are intentionally or unintentionally harmful we must work to change them. 

I also think that transforming one’s beliefs is not merely a matter of will.  Try though we might to wave them off, our biases are tremendously durable and cannot simply be eliminated by fiat.  Moreover, the large and negative effect of poverty on a range of life outcomes is one of the most consistent findings in social science research.  Teachers who say they struggle to overcome the deleterious effects of poverty or institutional racism are not crazy.  The obstacles they face are real.  Given these points, I think that the narrative surrounding the Belief Gap must be supplemented by a narrative of support.  Teachers implicitly or explicitly harboring stereotypes and working under conditions of grave social inequality need deliberate and prolonged support to transform their beliefs about students and to help all of their students succeed. 

The good news is that organizational structures and support – such as the vision of a school leader, the way he or she interacts with teachers on a daily basis, time set aside for reflection and self-study, models of antiracist professional development – can be instrumental in minimizing teachers’ deficit mindsets and strengthening their sense of responsibility for students.  In an ethnographic study of urban schools, Diamond, Randolph, and Spillane (2004) documented schools whose organizational culture and structures helped to refocus teachers’ sense of identity and fortify their responsibility for student success. 

Some of the structures observed by Diamond and his colleagues – like a voluntary “Breakfast Club,” at which teachers read and discussed education research and reflected on their own practice – could be implemented relatively easily by a school leader who combines creative scheduling with some good natured arm-twisting.  But the commitment and time required to help teachers seriously interrogate their beliefs and improve their practice also costs real money.  Thus, a conversation about closing the Belief Gap should also include arguments in favor of more time for professional learning and collaborative inquiry and more money to hire facilitators who can lead these ongoing conversations. 

In addition, while I think that addressing the Belief Gap is necessary, I should say that I do not think it is sufficient in the absence of other large-scale public policy efforts to shrink income inequality, protect the civil rights of students and families, and address entrenched institutional racism.  I am inclined to think that the purveyors of Belief Gap bumper stickers and preachers of Belief Gap sermons agree with me on this point, but I make it because the rhetoric can sometimes make it sound as if the Belief Gap is the last hurdle remaining to real and sustained educational equity.  For example, Barbic writes that the Belief Gap is the “one big idea that …best captures the sad state of affairs when it comes to persistently low-performing schools.”  An important and worrisome and even urgent factor in persistently under-performing schools, quite possibly.  A factor bigger and more pernicious than structural inequality, quite dubious.

To press us all to interrogate our beliefs and to bring them in line with the enormous potential of our young people is noble and essential work, which is precisely why I think it should not be reduced to slogans or over-simplified prescriptions.  Closing the Belief Gap will demand a sustained and coordinated investment in civil rights policies that have long been abandoned in favor of "colorblind" reform, as well as authentic antiracist education through which teachers and school leaders and policymakers critically examine their biases and continually work to transform them. 

We should believe in all students.  We should pour all of our energies into helping them fulfill their potential.  We should work tirelessly on their behalf.  And we should make sure that schools and teachers have resources and support equal to this boundless belief in our students.