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Student’s thesis shows teachers’ bias against Maori pupils

Student’s Masters thesis shows teachers’ bias against Maori pupils

When Hana Turner decided to survey teachers about their expectations for their pupils’ success, she was shocked by their stereotypical and racist attitudes toward Māori students and their families.

Hana conducted the survey for her thesis “Teacher Expectations, Ethnicity and the Achievement Gap”. The thesis was for her Master of Education degree at the University of Auckland, which was supervised by Associate Professor Christine Rubie-Davies and Dr Melinda Webber.

“I wanted to find out whether teachers had different expectations for their students based on their ethnicity,” she explains

But the comments and attitudes from teachers towards their Māori students shocked and surprised Hana. She found the teachers blamed Māori students and their families for their lack of success in the classroom.

The findings revealed that teachers’ expectations were highest for Asian students, followed by Pākehā and Pasifika students.

“But then much, much lower than that were the Māori students,” Hana says.

“The teachers predominately had very negative opinions about their Māori students.

“They had very low expectations for them. They blamed the students themselves for not being as competent as other ethnic groups and they blamed the students’ families.

“They said that the parents weren’t interested in their children’s education and that many Māori had criminal tendencies and would probably end up in jail.”

Statements from the thesis make troubling reading including:

One teacher who said that she held exactly the same expectations for all of her students contradicted this statement somewhat when she talked about some Māori being very smart but stated that they were using their brains for criminal activity, which in effect revealed a belief that ‘smart’ was not the norm for Māori and those Māori who were smart were in jail.

One teacher said, “I watch this Police 10/7... The suspects will always be Māori.”

Teachers were asked why they thought there was an achievement gap. Most were able to identify numerous reasons and responsibility was primarily placed with the students, their parents and their home background rather than with teacher or school-related factors.

One surprising finding was that some teachers said that they did not know why there was an achievement gap. For example, one teacher was asked, “So why do you think that students from minority groups do not achieve as highly as white students?” The teacher replied, “I wouldn’t know.” The researcher asked, “You don’t know? You’ve got no idea?” And the teacher firmly replied, “No”.

“It was very, very stereotypical; it didn’t appear that there was much hope for Māori students at all.”

This low ranking of Māori students also contradicts the fact that their actual achievement was equivalent to that of Pasifika students and that 20 per cent of the Māori students in the study were achieving at an above-average level.

“Teachers only said positive things about Asian students, even though there are Asian students who don’t do well at school.”

The study involved 15 mathematics teachers and 361 Year 9 and Year 10 students. The participants were recruited from five secondary schools in Auckland, three low- decile, one mid-decile and one high-decile. The teachers and students completed questionnaires and ten teachers also participated in semi-structured interviews.

Hana has been a teacher since 1998, having completed a Bachelor of Education and a DipTchg at the University’s Faculty of Education.

She returned to the University to do her Masters on a Teach NZ scholarship.

The comments have particularly hit home partly due to her heritage.
Hana has blue eyes and fair hair but is proudly of Ngati Ranginui descent. Her family is steeped in the value of education.

Her grandfather, Maharaia Winiata, was the first Māori to study and be awarded a PhD outside of New Zealand.

Having graduated with an M.A., Dip.Ed. from the University of Auckland in 1945, he received a Nuffield Scholarship in 1952 which enabled him to study at Edinburgh University.

His PhD thesis, The Changing Role of Leadership in Maori Society, studied shifting patterns of authority in the twentieth century, from great tribal chiefs to younger, Pakeha-educated, Christian and professional Māori leadership.

“I come from a well-educated Māori family. A lot of the research talks about how Māori aren’t achieving. It’s very negative. There are Māori out there who are achieving; we’re not a completely uneducated people.”

Hana hopes her thesis will highlight that lots of work is still needed around culturally responsive teaching in schools and in teacher training organisations so that the deficit beliefs that teachers may hold for Māori students are able to be challenged and rejected.

Hana wants teachers to start assessing their role in the classroom in regards to all ethnicities. Teachers can certainly contribute to students’ achievement: Positive student-teacher relationships, along with high expectations and quality teaching are all things that support students to achieve successfully at school.


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