A Look at "Lookism": A Critical Analysis of Teachers' Expectations Based on Students Appearance

By DeCastro-Ambrosetti, Debra; Cho, Grace | Multicultural Education, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

A Look at "Lookism": A Critical Analysis of Teachers' Expectations Based on Students Appearance


DeCastro-Ambrosetti, Debra, Cho, Grace, Multicultural Education


Introduction

As educators in the United States, we have been socialized to believe that our mission in teaching is to play nice and treat all of our students the same, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or gender. What is often missing in this teaching-all-equally approach is a counter-narrative that questions whether teachers can in fact successfully act as the gate keepers of equal educational opportunities.

The concept of educational inequality has been the focus for many researchers, each trying to arrive at the root of the problem in order to offer possible solutions. These different perspectives and possible answers have ranged from a focus on IQ as in Jensen's deficit of Blacks theory (Jensen, 1969), to IQ deficit as it relates to the lower social classes (Eysenck, 1971; Herrnstein, 1973), and continuing with the cultural deficit theory which relates familial, linguistic, cognitive, and attitudinal backgrounds to lower academic achievement (Valentine, 1968).

What each of these theories has in common is that they position students within structures of dominance that are indicated by race or class and more indirectly by appearance and/or language. The problem with this is that such structures of dominance implicate teachers and place blame on students as victims rather than holding responsible the larger frameworks or institutions that imposed these societal constraints. Further, these structures of dominance negatively influence teachers' expectations for students.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is another theory that analyzes racial inequity and the social construction of race and discrimination. These concepts are present in the work of many notable scholars, including Gloria Ladson-Billings whose writings on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (1995) has been a major contribution to the understanding of educational equity. Further, distinctions have surfaced within CRT which seek to account for such factors as gender, language, and oppression.

Persell (1977) has offered four possible reasons why teachers may hold lower expectations for certain students. The first reason is tied to the distinct personality of the teachers themselves. The second suggests that teachers are exposed to certain socializing experiences in addition to their own prejudices. The third considers how teachers are influenced by research and ideas such as the IQ deficit and cultural deficit theories. Finally, Persell suggests that certain educational structures, for instance tracking, influence teachers' expectations of students.

Considering Physical Appearance

Another influencing factor that may contribute to teachers' expectations for their students can be linked to the students' physical appearance. The concept of physical appearance influencing a teacher's expectation of specific students was first noted by Clifford and Walster (1973). Their study found that the physical attractiveness of a student was directly related to the teacher's expectations of the student's intelligence, popularity, and educational motivation.

Adams and LaVoie's (1974) study looked at the effect that physical attractiveness had on teachers' expectations of students. They examined the responses of 350 elementary teachers in a large, urban district. Each teachers was given a color photo of each student along with the students' progress reports. The participants were asked to predict, based upon the documents they were given, how a student would fare in terms of attitude, work habits, parental interest, and peer relations. They found that attractiveness may have influenced the teachers' perceptions of students initially, but that the student's record was the most influential factor.

While this early research, now several decades old, is of interest and potential importance, the critical question currently is whether similar issues of student appearance play a gate-keeping role in teaching today. Whether photos or written records are influencing teachers' expectations of students, both must be considered shortsighted and inappropriate ways to make judgments and are an invitation to exercise underlying and possibly even unconscious prejudices on the part of teachers. …

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