The Myths that Blind: The
Role of Beliefs in School Change
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
Schools in the US continue to fail our most marginalized children. We
know children of color, poor children and English language learners
often receive the smallest pieces of the educational pie. One does not
have to look far to see that reality. Forty-five percent of Latino
children did not graduate in 2002 (Olson, 2006). Children of color
continue to lag behind in college attendance (Hallinan, 2001), NAEP test
scores (Madeus & Clarke, 2001) and access to demanding courses
(Darling-Hammond, 2000). Regardless of the breadth of these issues,
when we talk about the achievement gap, we tend to focus on the
technical. Politicians argue for new computers, principals ask for more
funding, teachers request instructional aides or updated materials.
Conversations about school improvement often hinge on these more
tangible changes. While such technical considerations are surely part
of the equation, I would argue that fundamentally, addressing the
achievement gap means unearthing the norms that allow this gap to
While many factors complicate the improvement of urban schools, change
is often hampered by perceptions and beliefs. Myths about urban schools,
“at-risk” students and families in poverty impact how schools function.
While many of these beliefs remain unspoken and unchallenged, they form
the bedrock on which we build educational policies and practice. Such
beliefs can be considered a form of grammar: those taken-for-granted,
unconscious structures that form the basis of the “way things are”
(Tyack & Tobin, 1994). Changes – the likes of which would be required to
address the achievement gap – often require a retooling of belief
systems. It is not easy to change perceptions.
Challenges to normative beliefs tend to create the most resistance
(Oakes, Welner, Yonezawa, & Allen, 1998). Thus, equity-minded reformers,
especially those who wish to redistribute resources or challenge the
status quo, must struggle with both the technical aspects of closing the
achievement gap and the normative beliefs of stakeholders involved at
all levels. Using Oakes’ framework to understand the dimensions of
school change (1992; 1998), this essay will outline perceptual factors
that equity-minded change agents face as they argue for equal
opportunities for all. I will argue that before we can consider new
methods and new curricula, we need to consider our beliefs about the
children we teach and how those understandings shape the educational
realities of our students. I will argue that without attention to the
normative beliefs that impede closing the achievement gap, urban schools
will continue to be constrained by inequity.
A Framework for Considering Change
Whether reforms are embraced or rebuffed rests upon the will and
perceived needs of a wide array of school, district and community
constituents. We can organize these competing factors in terms of three
conceptual components. Oakes (1992) suggests three dimensions– the
political, technical, and normative – which impact school change. Oakes
conceives of the political perspective to include the power
relationships between actors, both within schools and from external
constituencies. Schools mirror the tensions and hierarchies of the
greater community. The push and pull occurring in communities over
resources, allocation and deservedness is replicated in schools.
Teachers, parents, administrators and community members engage in
political posturing in order to secure advantages for themselves and
their children. Closing the achievement gap often requires
redistributing resources. This reallocating of material, staffing and
programs should not be seen as a one dimensional movement of “things”
rearranged without consequence. Instead, it is key to acknowledge that
these resources are desirable - be they teachers, materials, or services
- and that redistribution from the haves to the have nots is often
fraught with tension.
Technical changes involve revisions to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment
and school organization (Oakes, 1992). Technical concerns involve how
schools are organized and how teaching occurs. Examples of technical
changes may include the addition of a standardized test or the adoption
of new textbooks. These changes, while critical, are but one piece of
the reform package.
Lastly, Oakes’ notion of the normative perspective helps us understand
that values and beliefs undergird policymaking and implementation. While
often unspoken, these attitudes and ideologies can be a source of
potential conflict for equity-minded reformers. Normative beliefs
include perceptions about ability, how difference is treated, and who is
considered educable. These beliefs form the foundation for subsequent
reform initiatives. For example, if a school wants to institute an
inclusion model for their children in special education, they must
tackle change on two fronts. Technical concerns require attention to the
logistical and personnel issues required for an inclusion model. But
additionally, and in many ways more importantly, teachers and
administrators should address the normative concerns inclusion may bring
up. Do teachers believe inclusion is fair to all children? Do they
believe it will harm “regular ed” children? Do they believe educating
children with special needs is their job?
Additionally, Oakes provides the useful construct of third order changes
(1998). While change is a constant in schools, it tends to be focused on
policies, procedures and programs. Third order changes are defined as
“fundamental changes which seek to reform core normative beliefs about
race, class, intelligence and educability held by educators and others
involved with our schools” (Oakes et al., 1998, p. 968). Third order
changes pose significant challenges for equity-minded reformers; they
require reconceptualizing beliefs about race, merit and fairness. Oakes
(1998) cautions that not all change is equal. Equity-minded change -
change that seeks to achieve equality of opportunity for all students -
is particularly precarious because it pushes the boundaries of
traditionally held views.
The Role of Teacher Beliefs
Teacher beliefs form the foundation
of the child/educator relationship. The expectations teachers have,
their beliefs about the educability of children and their personal
racism, overt or covert, impact their interactions with students.
Unfortunately, an array of research on teacher beliefs provides us with
two doses of bad news. First, teachers – in particular White teachers –
often have negative beliefs about children of color. Secondly, these
beliefs matter. School practices and policies are shaped by the
conceptions teachers and administrations have about the children in
their care. If these stakeholders harbor limiting beliefs, these beliefs
will be reflected in the programs and policies they create. Perceptions
do not simply exist as abstract concepts; they are functionally
consequential to the operation of schools.
The vast majority of teachers are White, thus when I talk of teacher
beliefs, it is primarily White teachers’ beliefs. While diversity within
the student population continues to grow, the opposite is true among
teachers. The teaching pool is becoming
more homogenous, as the number of teachers of color decreases (Nieto,
2000). Overall, Whites make up 90% of the teaching force in the United
States (Sleeter, 1998). While being White clearly does not preclude
teachers from effectively educating children of color, an expansive body
of literature argues that many White teachers often are not interested
in teaching children of color, may hold negative beliefs of children of
color and if they are teaching in diverse schools, do not feel prepared
to do so well. A study by Van Hook (2002) observed that White teacher
candidates prefer not to teach in culturally diverse schools.
Pre-service teachers favor working with students who are like them and
come from similar communities (Zimpher, 1989, in Zeichner, 1996). An ATE
study found that only 9% of teachers preferred to teach in multicultural
contexts, while most preferred to teach in the suburbs or small towns in
traditional schools (Association of Teacher Education, 1991). Research
by Larke (1990) found that four-fifths of her respondents preferred to
not work with students from diverse backgrounds. Overall, there remains
a “massive reluctance” on the part of new teachers to work in urban
schools (Zeichner, 1996, p.135).
Research also shows that White pre-service teachers often bring with
them negative views of children of color (Schultz, Neyhart, & Reck,
1996). In some cases,
underachievement on the part of children of color has become the default
expectation in schools. Many teachers find the underachievement of
children of color normal or expected (Sleeter, 1995). Because low
achievement is the norm, questioning why many children of color fail in
schools often does not seem necessary. Aaronsohn, Carter and Howell
(1995) found that teacher education students believed minority students
were “wise guys,” “delinquents” and “dirtier.” The majority of their
respondents also believed inner-city parents do not care about their
Misguided perceptions about intelligence continue to act as a sorting
mechanism in schools. Scientific claims based on everything from cranium
size to IQ testing have provided “evidence” as to how people of color
were intellectually inferior (Menchaca, 1997). While such claims are
largely out of favor, recent research still attempts to correlate race
with intelligence (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). I wonder how these
beliefs linger in our collective memory. Schools may not segregate
entire classrooms by race for instruction formally, but in many ways we
can see how this perception plays out. Does this “biological basis” of
intelligence help explain the over representation of White students in
gifted tracks? Or African American children in special education?
Returning to Tyack and Tobin’s notion of “grammar” again, we can see how
beliefs - like grammar – are enduring and unconscious. A constellation
of negative beliefs regarding worthiness, aptitude, merit, and effort
coalesce to create normative systems that shape children’s day to day
lives in schools. While decision makers may not consciously sort
children using such antiquated beliefs, the remnants of this ideology
Blame Shifting Myths
Myths are stories that explain traditional beliefs. A form of fiction,
they are often filled with half truths. Several myths aid in the
maintenance of the educational status quo. They include the myth of
cultural deprivation, the myth of meritocracy and the myth of
colorblindness. Together, these act as “blame shifting” myths. They
share common threads in that responsibility for the achievement gap is
attributed to a) factors beyond the control of administrators and
teachers or b) factors that are race neutral. Instead of forcing an
examination of bias and privilege, these myths allow the “tellers” to
shift blame to children, their families and their communities.
The myth of cultural deprivation maintains that children of color grow
up in communities which are steeped in negative attitudes and devoid of
aspirations for school success (Hallinan, 2001). This cultural deficit
model places blame on families as a source of pathology (Pearl, 1997)
and maintains that students of color are raised in families that are
“disorganized, noncompetitive and anti-intellectual” (Oakes, 1986,
p.66). The myth includes the notion that families of color do not value
education and are not interested in the educational advancement of their
children (Valencia & Solorzano, 1997). A 1991 survey found new teachers
indicating that children’s academic problems stemmed not from issues in
the classroom, but as consequences of their home lives (Gomez, 1993).
All too frequently, we can hear this myth actualized in refrains of
“these parents just don’t care” and “education isn’t important to these
people.” This myth is steeped in Eurocentrism. White child rearing
practices and approaches to education become the default manner of
socializing children, with non-European traditions being marginalized as
deficient. Maintaining this myth serves an important purpose in schools:
by locating families and communities as the source of underachievement,
schools can deflect their role in children’s low performance.
White teachers often support notions of meritocracy (Rist, 1970),
believing that if children of color just work harder, they too could be
successful. The myth of meritocracy states that all students have an
equal opportunity to succeed in life and in school, providing they work
hard and apply themselves. This myth supports the notion that schools
are neutral places, where structural inequities do not exist and
fairness is the name of the game. Teachers who support the notion of
meritocracy set up a worthy/unworthy dichotomy. Because all students
have equal chances to excel, students who do succeed within the system
are worthy of the benefits they receive. Children who fail do so of
their own accord, not because of bias in the system. The myth of
meritocracy is also colorblind. Merit stresses individual student
efforts while minimizing race and language based factors. As a
consequence, this myth ignores inequalities associated with one’s
gender, race, class and age (Oakes, 2002). By supporting this myth,
schools can maintain an illusion of race-neutrality. Thus, when children
of color are placed in low-value programs and are in the least desirable
tracks, schools can place the blame on students’ own motivation, effort
or intelligence, rather than unequal educational opportunities (Oakes,
Colorblindness presents a special dilemma. Many people aspire to
colorblindness, believing if they acknowledge race, they are somehow
racist. In denying they see race, Whites can distance themselves from
being considered racists. Colorblindness also allows Whites to seem
“innocent” or “neutral” since they claim not to consider race a current
issue (Bell, 2002). Pre-service teachers purport to treat all children
alike (Rist, 1970), claiming they do not notice – or act on –
differences in the classroom. While many authors highlight the
shortsightedness of colorblind rhetoric in education (Cochran-Smith,
1995; Pollock, 2004) helping White pre-service teachers see how
colorblindness contributes to inequality continues to be a
challenge. Cautions Delpit: “If one does not see color, one does not
really see children” (1995, p. 177). Delpit argues that de-racing
children wounds their self-concept and renders them invisible. When
teachers refuse to see children as racialized beings, they send a
message to children that their race is something best not
noticed. Moreover, Delpit warns that colorblindness, as it is actualized
in the curriculum, exacerbates poor performance by students of color.
They are unable to find representations of “the intellectual
achievements of people who look like themselves. Were that not the case,
these children would not talk about doing well in school as ‘acting
White’” (1995, p. 177). This invisibility contributes to a variety of
consequences, including diminished self-worth and a sense that the child
is not “worthy of notice” (p. 177). Through the myth of colorblindness,
we can see the belief-practice cycle unfold. While White teachers may
wish to seem “equitable” in the classroom by ignoring race, they are in
fact achieving the exact opposite. Schofield (1997) cautions that while
colorblindness pretends to minimize conflict, it actually makes race
taboo and stunts the ability to solve race-based conflicts. The myth
that we live in a colorblind world, one that treats all children equally
and is devoid of bias is disingenuous. When teachers operationalize
colorblindness in classrooms, however well-intended, the consequences
are damaging. Schools face real problems, with real roots in inequitable
practices. By removing race from the conversation, by making race a
non-issue, we remove any race, class, and language based remedies that
might be necessary.
Beliefs matter. Yes, most teachers will argue that they believe “all
children can learn.” Clearly, there are competent, supportive,
race-conscious teachers who believe in the potential, capabilities and
humanity of all their charges. But when the achievement gap continues to
exist, this phrase seems more a slogan than a reality. It is critical to
reflect on how normative assumptions impact policy and practice. Rather
than being neutral and unbiased, schools are shaped by long-held,
durable belief systems about the children they educate. Perceptions and
myths contribute to inaccurate pictures of children of color. Because
these myths often go unexamined, they continue to inform our educational
practice, tainting these practices with low expectations and acceptance
Returning again to Oakes’ frameworks, we are reminded that attention to
beliefs ought to work in tandem with attention to logistics and
political pressures. Normative beliefs influence the relationships
between teachers and students, schools and families, and communities and
the students in their care. As normative beliefs help shape technical
and political change, the foundation for lasting improvement begins
here. A focus on third order changes and on asking educational
stakeholders to reconsider how they view children of color is an
important start. In addressing the host of hurdles facing urban schools,
addressing normative beliefs is a crucial first step.
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