Address Attitude Gap and Stereotype Threat to Foster Growth

Share this Article

  • Email

May 19, 2021

This is the ninth in a series of guest blogs by the 2020-21 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Janine Scott is a high school teacher at Davis Aerospace Technical High School, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Student growth: That is something that all people in the field of education want for their students. Experts are constantly coming up with new strategies, techniques, philosophies and even technologies to help our students grow academically.

But in my experience, there is one main thing that affects student growth, and that thing is the desire to learn and achieve (along with the willingness to work for it), so today I will talk about two concepts that affect student growth, especially in communities of color. These concepts are the Attitude Gap and Stereotype Threat. 

The Attitude Gap is defined by education expert Baruti Kafele “as the gap between those students who have the will to strive for academic excellence and those who do not,” and what I have found out during my 17+ years as a teacher is that if I can help a student to see value in mathematics (and education in general), their achievement increases. 

In education, almost everyone agrees that measurement of student growth and achievement is a top priority for schools. I posit that although it is important to measure growth and learning in students, it is just as important to work with students on their attitudes about learning. If a student loves to learn, then they will work hard to master content, and their achievement will soar. As teachers, we can directly affect our student’s attitudes and help close the Attitude Gap by doing a few simple things.
  1. Tell your students daily that you care about them and their education.
  2. Make your classroom as inviting as possible so that your students are not afraid to come into your class even if what you teach is not their favorite subject.
  3. Teach on grade level (especially in middle and high school).Even if your students do not have some of the basic skills they need to complete all of your work, if you treat them as though they have the capability, they will believe in themselves and work harder for you, and they will grow.
  4. Work on erasing Stereotype Threat. You must believe that your students can achieve no matter what they look like, act like or how they behave, and one of the easiest ways to combat Stereotype Threat is to tell the students that they all can achieve, but BEFORE you tell them, you have to believe it yourself.
Stereotype Threat is the fear or anxiety of confirming negative group stereotypes. These are the stereotypes that we are harmful to our students and affect their ability to achieve because they are based on negativity, fear and bias. As teachers, we can help combat Stereotype Threat by doing one simple thing:

Recognize when we are about to stereotype and limit a student, and don’t do it!
Stereotypes Extinguish Stereotypes
I need some strong boys to help me carry out the boxes, or I need some girls to help decorate the classroom. “I need some students to carry out boxes and decorate the classroom” and then make sure you act as if your statements are your “normal” until they become your normal.
I will ask that tall black boy if he plays basketball, and I will assume that he is NOT that good in academics. Wonder (and ask) what the young man is interested in and encourage his academic skills with as much vigor as a sports enthusiast.
I will tell that young man to stop acting “girly” and “man up” if I see behaviors that I consider effeminate. I will tell that young lady that she acts like a “tomboy” because she likes trucks and sports. Understand that students have a right to be who they want to be as long as they are happy in their space (and do not hurt others).
I will tell the “minority” students that their English is excellent, and/or assume that because they speak with a dialect that they are unintelligent!!! How about you assume that all people have the capability to speak “good English,” and that different dialects (such as African-American Vernacular English or Spanglish) do not mean that a student is unintelligent or uneducated.
When we purposefully extinguish the Stereotype Threat that exists in our minds, we open a whole new realm of possibilities for our students because they do not become limited by stereotypes in our classrooms. The more we believe in our students, the more they believe in themselves, and once we start to close the Attitude Gap, the Achievement Gap will also close.

Teaching high school mathematics is a rewarding, yet challenging, job.  My name is Janine Scott, and I am the 2020-21 Region 10 MTOY. I left corporate America after 13 years to become a math teacher in Detroit.  I want students who look like me, or think like me, or feel like me, to know that they have the right to live the American Dream and that they are not bound by their current life circumstances, skin color, economics or because they live in the City of Detroit.  
Questions & Feedback