Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How Student Trust Levels Create Behavioral and Achievement Feedback Loops

A new study by David Yeager et al. demonstrates the close interaction between the level of trust students place in school leaders and how those students actually behave and perform in school.  In the discussion of their findings, they explain: 

Once students’ sense of trust or distrust was formed, it seemed to feed off its consequences, producing perceptions of procedural injustice that caused trust to decline further. Moreover, that decline in trust seemed to increase the likelihood of discipline infractions, creating the very social reality that precipitated it. These feedback loops proceed often hidden from the view of teachers and administrators because they unfold slowly and are partly psychological in nature. But their cumulative effect is a large trust gap by seventh grade that disfavored racial and ethnic minority students. Years later, the drop in trust in the transition to seventh grade and then eighth grade seemed to have lingering consequences, in the form of lower 4-year college enrollment for African Americans.

Trust, it seems, sat “in the middle” between social reality and later behavioral outcomes such as disciplinary infractions and college enrollment. We know this from an intervention in Study 1 that experimentally bolstered African Americans’ sense of trust in the face of sharp criticism of their work in the seventh grade. Because the link between trust and later outcomes depends on a continual feedback loop, an early experience that refuted the plausibility of procedural injustice had long-term effects, presumably through a kind of developmental cascade from trust to engagement and into educational pathways.

African American seventh graders who received wise feedback on an essay—conveying that the teacher believed in their potential to reach a higher standard, thus reassuring students that they would be seen based on their merits rather than through the lens of a negative stereotype about the intellectual ability of their racial group—benefited. . . . Although the objective experience of receiving “wise feedback” was short, the psychological and developmental consequences seemed long-lasting. Adolescents receiving the note were assigned fewer disciplinary infractions later according to official records and, nearly 6 years later, were more likely to attend a 4-year college according to the NSC.

This study, in a very concrete way, substantiates a central thesis of my work in Ending Zero Tolerance and Reforming School Discipline: educational quality and discipline policy are inherently linked.  Zero tolerance and punitive discipline policies break the social bonds between students and their teachers and principals--and not just for the students who are subject to punishment.  As a result, harsh discipline policies actually drive down student achievement.  Macro-level assessments of student achievement across states indicate this; school level regression analysis of student discipline indicates this; student surveys indicate this; and now this new and far-more complex case study indicates this.

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