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Teacher bias leads to Maori student failure

10 July 2016

Teacher bias leads to Maori student failure

A new study from diversity consultancy Oranui, Unconscious Bias in Education, has revealed how teachers’ low expectations have lead to decades of under-achievement by Maori students.

“The Pygmalion Effect is the term coined by researchers during the 1960s and updated during the 90s to describe how teachers’ expectations of students largely determine students’ educational achievement,” says Oranui Director and Principal Investigator of Unconscious Bias in Education Anton Blank.

“In this study we have compared Maori and African American students’ experience and found very similar patterns. Teachers in both countries have low expectations of these groups of children. As a result Maori and African American children lag well behind other groups at school.

“Maori children face significant barriers to achievement, which stem from negative stereotypes attached to Maori as a social group. Personal and interpersonal racism, and institutional racism, work together to perpetuate Maori disadvantage in almost all spheres.”

US literature shows that gaps in achievement between individuals and across socio-economic and racial groups open up at a very young age, before children start school. The gaps that emerge at a young age continue into adulthood.

“African American children enter kindergarten behind white children, and these achievement gaps persist at every grade level, and for every subject. Children who are deprived of the opportunity to learn through poverty and lack of education of their parents do not perform well at school.

“After accounting for these socio-economic factors, there is still a significant achievement gap between African American children and other groups. Like Maori children, we argue that this can be attributed to bias on behalf of teachers.

“Unconscious bias, a framework which we present in our report as a much-needed pathway out of the mire, suggests that bias is a natural human characteristic, socialised into us by a complex mish-mash of cultural messaging.

“We have affinity with people who are like us and more difficulty building relationships with people we don’t understand. It’s the law of attraction. Teachers bias towards Maori and African American children is unconscious. By and large they don’t consciously set out to discriminate against these students. Teachers simply find it easier to relate to children who are like them – from the same ethnic group.

“In New Zealand a hierarchy has developed. Recent research shows that teachers have highest expectations of Asian students, followed by Pakeha, Pasifika, and finally Maori. To mitigate the impact of these biases, the starting point for change then is for teachers to understand their own biases, and mitigate their impact on decision- making and interactions with students.”

Anton Blank says that solutions to unconscious bias have been trialled in other countries.

“In the United States successful interventions have been developed, which take the form of training and development programmes.

“The most successful of the programmes developed empathy in white Americans for African Americans through a series of association exercises. The exercises helped white Americans unpack stereotypes they had about African Americans, and replace these stereotypes with more positive perceptions. The tests also helped the white Americans understand what it is like to be a minority group.

“In this report we have focused on education but unconscious bias impacts Maori in almost all spheres. It is, however, absolutely possible to change the situation.

“Recognising how unconscious bias influences teachers’ relationships with Maori students is the key to lifting Maori educational achievement. Tools and programmes to address unconscious bias towards Maori should be developed and applied broadly in the full range of education, health and social service sectors. A whole of systems approach is required.”

This report will be launched on Wednesday 13 July in Wellington. All media are invited to attend.

Are New Zealanders racist?

Racial attacks

• Data from the 2011/2012 New Zealand Health Survey – a national survey of approximately 13,000 adults and 4500 children (New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2012) – indicated Maori are almost three times as likely as non-Maori to have experienced unfair treatment on the basis of ethnicity. 12.4 % of Maori reported unfair treatment in the areas of health care, housing or work between 2011 and 2012, compared to 4.2% of non-Maori. Data also showed Maori were more than 1.5 times more likely to have ever experienced ethnically motivated physical or verbal attacks, with more than a quarter of Maori men, or 26.9%, having experienced such attacks (New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2015). [i]
• Similarly, in 2013 the New Zealand Human Rights Commission[ii] (NZHRC) received 496 complaints of racial discrimination from New Zealand citizens. People of Asian, Polynesian and Maori descent all made complaints of racism, however, Maori reported experiencing the most discrimination. The largest number of complaints related to perceived discrimination in the employment area (not being given jobs or given less favourable working conditions because of their race/ethnicity).


• Turner used interviews and surveys to collect data from 15 New Zealand teachers and 14-16 year old students (n=361). Her analyses confirmed that European/Pakeha teachers held more negative beliefs about Maori students than any other ethnic groups in their classes.[iii] Bishop et al., (2003) has suggested it is these negative perceptions that Pakeha hold about Maori students which leads them to treat Maori as if they are not capable of success which, in turn, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of Maori educational failure.[iv]
• Holmes, Murachver & Bayard (2001)[v] found negative attitudes towards Maori also exist among New Zealand High School students. Their study of 164 predominantly European/Pakeha students (aged 12-18 years old) found students rated Maori speakers as significantly lower on measure of social class and intelligence than Pakeha speakers.

[i] New Zealand Ministry of Health. (2015). Tatau Kahukura: Maori Health Chart Book 2015 (3rd edition). Wellington: Ministry of Health.

[ii] New Zealand Ministry of Health. (2012). New Zealand Health Survey Methodology Report. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

[iii] Turner, H. (2013). Teacher expectations, ethnicity and the achievement gap. Unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Auckland.
[iv] Bishop, R., Richardson, C., Tiakiwai, S. & Berryman, M. (2013). Te Kotahitanga Phase 1: The experiences of Year 9 and 10 Maori students in mainstream classrooms. Wellington, New Zealand: Maori Education Research Institute. Retrieved 3 May 2016 from
Turner, H. (2013). Teacher expectations, ethnicity and the achievement gap. Unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Auckland.
[v] Holmes, K., T. Murachver, & D. Bayard. (2001). Accent, Appearance, and Ethnic Stereotypes in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 30 (2), 79-86.


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