Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How Teachers' Attributions, Expectations, and Stereotypes Influence the Learning Opportunities Afforded Aboriginal Students

Article excerpt

Introduction

By 2017, Aboriginal people will represent 3.4% of the working-age population within Canada (Statistics Canada, 2005), identifying Aboriginal youth as playing an essential role to Canada's future educational and economic development (Preston, 2008). Considering that education is a central tool for economic development and in establishing one's sense of selfworth, the need for increased educational attainment for Aboriginal youth is integral for labour integration and future employment (Bazylak, 2002; Duncan & Sokal, 2003; Hampton & Roy, 2002; James, 2001; R.A. Malatest & Associates, 2004) and would also provide more Aboriginal peoples the means for acquiring leadership roles in academic and political institutions (Preston, 2008; Wotherspoon & Schissel, 1998). Despite some educational advances (Friesen & Friesen, 2005; Hull, 2005; Preston, 2008; Rae, 2005), Aboriginal learners continue to fall behind their non-Aboriginal peers with regards to educational outcomes (Levin, 2009).

Aboriginal students in Canada continue to be less likely than non-Aboriginal peers to enrol in academically challenging courses (Cowley & Easton, 2004); they are also more likely to leave school prior to graduation and less likely to return (Council of Ministers of Education, 1999). The 2006 Census of Canada (Bougie, 2009, p.17) reported that 31% of the off-reserve First Nations population aged 25-64 did not have a high school diploma compared with 15% of their counterparts in the total Canadian population. This does not bode well for First Nation youths' future employment prospects, as half the jobs in Canada require at least a secondary school education (MNGE, 2002). The 2004 Auditor General's Report indicated that it would take approximately 28 years for the current educational divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to close (Auditor General's Report, 2004).

Wotherspoon (2008) asserts that teachers play a significant role when it comes to fostering "a strong grounding for Aboriginal people's incorporation into a social and economic environment dominated by emphasis on information and knowledge work" (p. 3). Researchers also suggest that teachers' attributions and stereotypes may be a contributing factor when it comes to Aboriginal/minority drop-out rate in schools (Brandon, 2002; Farkas, 2003; Garcia, 2001; Riley & Ungerleider, 2008). It is the recognition of the significant influence teachers may have upon the educational success of students combined with the influence their attributions may have on the decisions made about their students that raises questions about bias.

This study explores the following three research questions: (1) How do teachers' regard Aboriginal students?; (2) What factors influence how teachers assign pupils to different opportunities?; and (3) What reasons do teachers give for their recommendations about the opportunities that are afforded to students? This study invites 21 teachers to participate in a task that probes teachers' ideas regarding issues of race, class, gender, and discrimination in the classroom in order to offer a rare assessment of the basis of classroom decision-making. This topic is timely as more attention needs to be paid to how the experiences and perceptions of teachers might influence the success of Canada's increasingly diverse student body.

Teachers' Expectations

The term teachers' expectations describe the inferences teachers make regarding students' potential to achieve in the classroom. These inferences may be influenced by a number of factors. Some factors may be internal to the student, such as a student's aptitude for academic achievement. external factors such as IQ test scores, a student's family background, and comments made by former teachers regarding a student's performance may shape teachers' perceptions of students before they enter the classroom.

In a study regarding teachers' perceptions of students, Smith, Jussim, and Eccles (1999) found that while "self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of effect size were relatively small, their presence over time was quite remarkable" (p. …