Stereotype threat describes the concept that people are at a higher risk of conforming to negative stereotypes about their social group in situations where they are judged compared to others, rather than on personal merit. In standardized testing, this threat has been shown to decrease the performance of students from negatively stereotyped groups.
“Negatively stereotyped groups” are often people of color, or people of low socioeconomic status. When urban students are subjected to the generalizations that they are “ghetto,” or that they will never catch up to their affluent peers, the pressure of representing an entire social group is placed on their shoulders.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, an urban community adjacent to some of the richest towns in the state, our public school system is severely underfunded. With this disparity, schools from Bridgeport are viewed to be abandoning their students. Students are viewed as unruly, and not worth fighting for. These stereotypes not only impact the funding and representation that we receive by the state, but the students and teachers working there.
Students are bombarded by these stereotypes everyday—with their friends, in the news and in school. When students in urban schools are constantly compared to wealthier students in wealthier neighborhoods, the pressure may cause them to affirm the stereotypes placed upon them.
Students are made hyper-aware of the state of their schools, but not empowered by their teachers and community leaders to change the status quo, or that they have the power to. In the classroom, this phenomenon remains an undertone of student motivation and success.
The first step towards reducing the impact of this threat is to address it in school—to honestly address these issues and empower students, rather than portray them as the victims of circumstance.
The classroom is a place of learning, exploration and growth. Inevitably, the social issues that students face will come up. The class and racial prejudice that students face every day cannot be ignored when these uncomfortable topics impact every aspect of their school career.
When a child asks, “Will my mom get deported?” teachers often do not know how to approach the topic, and brush it off. Either way, teachers know that, despite their best efforts, these systemic issues are bigger than they are.
So how can teachers prepare students to face these issues rather than accept them as fact?
Leave Bias at the Door
Education in urban communities is plagued by judgement. Teachers are asked, “Why do you work there,” while students are seen as unruly and underperforming. These prejudices take root in the classroom when students and teachers internalize these views. Implicit bias, even among the most well-intentioned educators, has been shown to cause disproportionate rates of suspension among Black boys compared to their White counterparts. Apart from discipline, implicit bias has the power to impact student achievement, and self-image.
Have Honest Conversations
Racism. Poverty. Inequality. For teachers, these large issues can seem daunting or uncomfortable to address in the classroom. However, students have to face these realities everyday. Students need to know how systemic inequalities impact their education. Having conversations about social issues in school allows teachers to activate change within their students, rather than complacency.
Empower Students Through Understanding
When students have access to qualified teachers that look like them, they are able to see themselves in their educators. These positive role models are able to create a culturally responsive learning environment and empower students to see themselves as professionals rather than the negative stereotypes that society portrays them as.
The Fight for Funding
When the Nation’s Report Card showed little growth, and the achievement gap failed to recede, richer schools remained at the top, and urban schools remained at the bottom. This issue impacts every aspect of a student’s school experience, so involving their voice in this fight is the first step in exposing the systemic biases that actively work against students of color. When we accept and internalize the stagnation in our schools, students remain trapped in this cycle because they are not given the resources to break free. When teachers empower students to break through these stereotypes, students can begin to create their own narrative.
Create a Culture of Action
Once students are able to realize that they have the power to combat the stereotypes that society places against them, the classroom becomes a place of action. Conversation leads to change.
When we address social issues in the classroom, the stereotypes that students internalize can be viewed as something that they can change, not something that limits them. Sugar coating the real issues that students go through only prevents their growth. When students know that they have the agency to change the systemic issues that plague them, they are not limited by their stereotypes, but empowered to change them.