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Unexamined Beliefs: Understanding Teachers’ Reasoning about Poverty


Teachers’ racial, ethnic, and gender biases have been shown to impact their classroom practices and expectations of students, but little research has examined how teachers’ poverty-related biases affect their students’ educational experiences. This study focused on elementary school teachers’ social class bias as it intersected with race, ethnicity, and gender by examining teachers’ reasoning about poverty and its relation to their assessment of student work. Data were collected from fifth grade teachers (N = 302) throughout California. Participants were asked to use a provided rubric to assess a single personal narrative and were told that it was written by a fifth grade student, although it was actually written by researchers for the purpose of this study. Before assessing this piece of writing, participants viewed (but did not assess) what they were told was another piece of the same student’s writing. The student demographics included in this first piece of writing (i.e., student’s social class background, race/ethnicity, gender) varied and represented one of twelve possible student profiles. This piece of writing was meant to prime the participants as to the demographics of the student whose work they were going to assess. To assess explicit beliefs about poverty, teachers completed a survey a week after assessing the student writing that asked about their own demographics, values, ideologies, and about their beliefs about the traits of poor and middle class people and causal attributions for poverty. Overall, participants endorsed more positive and fewer negative traits for both the poor and middle class and believed that poverty is more likely to be caused by reasons outside of an individual’s direct control than by causes within one’s control. Political ideology and the endorsement of System Justification and the Protestant Work Ethic were related to beliefs about poverty. Results from the assessment of students’ writing should be interpreted with caution, but suggest a significant interaction between the effects of students’ race/ethnicity and social class on the grades teachers’ assigned the writing. Implications and next steps are discussed.

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