For minority students to succeed, teachers need to earn trust

African-American students who trust their school to be fair are more likely to go on to college


Middle-school students lose trust in teachers when they witness biased behavior. Trust-building can help students to succeed.


The difference between a student giving up or succeeding in school may boil down to trust. This may be particularly true for students of color. Minority middle-school students that retain trust in their teachers and school get better grades. They also go on to college more often than their peers who lose trust, a new study shows. But a compassionate teacher with high expectations can earn back that trust — and help their students achieve success.

As students grow into adulthood, they learn who and what they can trust. This includes what is known as institutional trust. Young people learn to trust or distrust institutions — such as the police, schools or the government — through their own experiences and by watching these entities in action.

Middle school is a particularly important time in the development of institutional trust, says David Yeager. He’s a psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin. “It takes a certain level of cognitive maturity to think in general about an institution rather than a single person,” he says. In elementary school, students may trust in a teacher or two. But they are not yet able to see an individual as part of a broader educational system.

By middle school, however, that can change. Students “are getting to the point where they have that ability,” Yeager says. Puberty plays a role, he points out; surging hormones can “make kids more sensitive to unfairness and injustice and disrespect.” 

Students also have more years of experience to draw on by the time they reach middle school. That potentially means they have seen more incidents in which a teacher or their school treated them or someone they know unfairly. This may especially be true for students from minority groups. “Minority youth learn from an early age that their group could be seen as lower ability or more likely to be dangerous,” Yeager says.

That can start a pattern of lost trust, additional defiance, more punishment and more distrust. “We find that trust that’s lost in the hallways translates into hesitance to do what teachers say in the classroom,” Yeager says. As students participate less in the classroom, their grades drop. Opportunities begin to vanish. Students perceive the system as more unfair — and less trustworthy. And that cycle perpetuates itself.

Less trust, less learning

To investigate how much trust in teachers and education influence student success, Yeager and his colleagues recruited 277 students from a public school in the northeastern United States (with permission forms from their parents). About half the kids were African-American; the other half were white. Each spring and fall from sixth through eighth grade, beginning in 2004, the students were given a survey. It asked if they felt their school treated them fairly and whether they perceived bias in the way school policies were enforced. The researchers then followed those students through high school and on to college.  

In sixth grade, there was no difference between white and African-American students in institutional trust or how students felt they were treated. Trust then decreased over seventh and eighth grades among all students. The drop, though, was larger among African-American students than white students.

African-American students also reported feeling that the educational system was more biased against them than other students. And they may have been right. These students received more discipline than their white counterparts — especially for subjective incidents categorized as “defiance” or “disobedience.” 

As these African-American students saw more bias, they also lost more and more trust in the educational system — even if they weren’t themselves the ones being disciplined. And over time, many opted out entirely. Students who lost more trust in education were less likely to attend a four-year college.

A one-year follow-up study with Hispanic and Latino seventh-grade students saw similar trust gaps emerge over the school year.

Could teachers restore this lost trust? To find out, the researchers tried a method called “wise feedback” with a subset of 44 seventh-grade students. Wise teaching strategies, Yeager explains, show students that they are valued and respected while holding them to a high standard.  

Sticky notes are nice, but they have to represent a teacher and a school a student can trust.Zhenikeyev/istockphoto

For 11 African-American and 11 white students, Yeager had their social studies teacher add a handwritten sticky note to a single graded essay. The note said “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The goal, Yeager says, was to send a message that the teacher knew the student was worthwhile and had potential, and that the teacher would support the student in efforts to improve their work. The other group of 22 students served as a control. Their note said only that they were getting feedback on their paper.

For African-American students, Yeager says, the wise feedback phrase “felt like a revelation.” Those students had fewer discipline incidents in the eighth grade than those who received control notes. They also were more likely to end up at a four-year college more than five years later. The notes, meanwhile, had no effect on white students.

Yeager and his group published their findings February 8 in the journal Child Development.

Trust is more than magic words

“It is in some sense a validation that [saying] the right things to a kid at the right time can inspire them in ways that stick,” Yeager says. But he warns against the idea that a sticky note alone can fix broken trust. Yeager worries that some company will start selling Post-It notes with “good job” messages as a means to help teachers “magically make your achievement gap go away.” However, he points out, “There’s nothing magic about the phrase.”

The real effect, he says, is in treating minority students with respect. The note, he says, “only works because the teachers did care.” If teachers behave with bias and act on stereotypes, no sticky note is going to make a difference. 

The effect of those sticky-note messages on the students was impressive, says Anne Gregory. She is a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. But she agrees with Yeager that those notes cannot stand alone. Actions need to back up the written sentiments. “Kids are picking up on clues constantly [that tell them] how adults feel about them and how they’re being treated,” she says. “Kids see through superficial ‘you did a good job’ affirmations.”

Good teachers know that they can’t take their authority for granted, Gregory says. Minority students who have been marginalized in the past are not going to walk into a classroom automatically trusting their next teacher to be fair. “Teachers need to work to earn that trust,” she says. A nice sticky note might help, but only if it’s a sign of a truly trustworthy teacher.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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