• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2010 •Josie Cortez

“I can tell you right now who’s going to drop out of school.” It’s been 10 years, but I still remember that second grade teacher’s words. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind that she could accurately predict who wouldn’t make it. Not surprisingly, she was referring to children who were minority, who came from low-income families, and whose first language wasn’t English. She believed all children can learn – except for those over there.

There is an impressive array of research that tells us that teacher expectations matter for their students’ success. Three decades ago, researchers were studying the effects of teachers’ expectations as self-fulfilling prophecies for their students. In the 1980s, Beady and Hansell’s research showed that African American teachers in a predominantly African American elementary school were more likely to expect their African American students to enroll in and graduate from college than were White teachers in the same school (1981). In 2004, Dee’s research found that same-race teacher-student assignment significantly increased the math and reading achievement both of African American students and of White students. That same year, García and Ortiz published their study on the misplacement and overrepresentation of English language learners (ELLs) in special education programs, often a result of teachers’ low expectations for ELL students, “Teachers sometimes judge students’ competence on the basis of race, sex, socio-economic, linguistic and cultural differences, rather than on actual abilities” (2004).

Many teachers are dedicated to ensuring that all students succeed in school and in life. But there are also those teachers and administrators who believe that some children and youth will never succeed and who go into triage mode and spend their time, energy and school resources with those children they believe “will make it,” while ignoring others.

Reinforcing these low expectations are accountability standards that say your school is acceptable if only 50 percent of students pass, for example, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Would you get on an airplane that is rated acceptable with those kinds of accountability standards, knowing you have a 50-50 chance of getting to your destination?

And now this belief system is bolstered by our own Texas State Legislature. In “Texas Policymakers Live Up to Their Own Low Expectations – A Post Legislative Session Assessment of Changes Proposed and Reforms Adopted in 2009,” Dr. Albert Cortez points to a series of regressive legislative changes that include differentiated curriculum track, including – a “college bound” track and a “career-technical track” (2009). If a school has retained a student at least once before the 10th grade, then he or she is placed into the career-technical track (remember the old voc-ed track). The student’s parents will be required to approve the change, but we know all too well that many parents will be asked questions like: “Do you want your child to take all these required college courses or do you want him to graduate?” Once on this track, students will be given fewer mathematics and science courses and less rigorous ones at that – precisely those gatekeeper courses they will need if they are going to succeed in two- or four-year colleges.

We can safely predict that the train on the “career-technical” track will be filled with mostly minority, low-income, and ELL students. Meanwhile, schools will provide the more rigorous curriculum of four years each of English, mathematics, science, and social studies for those students they believe are college bound.

This point is underscored by IDRA’s President & CEO: “Today, our public schools are losing tens of thousands of students every year. And we only have a 5 percent higher education participation rate. That rate is a mere 3.7 percent for Hispanic students… But rather than embracing the challenge, some state leaders seem intent on lowering expectations. Unfortunately the new ‘accountability’ plans… do not result in… the creation of schools that educate all students to a true level of college readiness. In fact, these measures will have a devastating effect on our state.” (2009)

So how does one change the trajectory? You begin by examining your own beliefs – do you fundamentally believe that not all students can succeed? Whatever the answer, carefully and honestly examine what you are doing to make that belief a reality. Because, what you think about students and what you do for them everyday matters. You, as a teacher or a principal or a policymaker, were once a second-grader and someone believed in you. There were some who didn’t, perhaps because you were an English language learner or low-income or minority, but someone along the way gave you a chance. And now it is your turn to be that person and to believe in someone’s success – even if they or others don’t see it yet.

That fundamental shift in belief can be one of the most powerful predictors of success, but it has to be matched by action. So believe that all children can and will succeed, and believe in your own capacity to transform your school so that it works for all children. If you need support, ask for it. And remember that you are not alone. Connect with your community, parents, teachers, administrators – anyone who will take a stand with you to ensure that children have everything they need to succeed in school. Use IDRA’s Quality School Action Framework and other IDRA resources to help with that transformation (Robledo Montecel, 2005).

When the 81st Texas State Legislature or the legislature of any state tells its schools that all children can learn, except for those over there, don’t believe it. Instead, take up the challenge to prove them wrong. Show them that all children have inherent value and promise, and it is up to schools to acknowledge, nurture and ensure their success. “Those over there” are now the majority of students in Texas schools; more than half are low-income, and one in six is ELL. We had better prove them wrong, because our future and our children’s future depends on it.


Beady, Jr., C.H., and S. Hansell. “Teacher Race and Expectations for Student Achievement,” American Educational Research Journal (1981). Vol. 18, No. 2, 191-206.

Cortez, A. “Texas Policymakers Live Up to Their Own Low Expectations – A Post Legislative Session Assessment of Changes Proposed and Reforms Adopted in 2009,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 2009).

Dee, T.S. “Teachers, Race, and Student Achievement in a Randomized Experiment,” Review of Economic and Statistics (February 2004) Vol. 86, No. 1, Pages 195-210.

García, S.B., and A.A. Ortiz. Preventing Inappropriate Referrals of Language Minority Students to Special Education (Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

Robledo Montecel, M. “At a Time When We Most Need Strength, Texas Education is At-Risk of Being Weakened,” statement (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 28, 2009).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Robledo Montecel, M., and J.D. Cortez, A. Cortez, A. Villarreal. Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English: A Guide (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2002).

Rodríguez, J.L. “Changing Teacher Perceptions of Students through Coaching and Mentoring – Using an Asset Rather Than a Deficit Lens,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2009).

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]