The experiences of minority children and youth in American schools are overlaid with a history of exclusion and oppression. It is important to remember that numbered among today’s adults are the first black students to be educated in de jure desegregated schools. The historic exclusion of individuals on the basis of ethnicity has been accompanied by a stigmatizing process that has devalued those students associated with excluded minority groups. The work of Mickelson (1990), Steele and Aronson (1995), Steele (1997), Cunningham (1999), Spencer (1999), and others suggest that, at some point in the transition from childhood to adulthood, students become aware of the wider society’s assessment of their racial/ethnic group. Claude Steele (1997) has advanced the theory of stereotype vulnerability to explain why many minority students may perform poorly or choose not to participate in academic endeavors in which they run the risk of confirming the stereotype that they are intellectually inferior. Through a series of experiments, Steele demonstrated that black students scored lower on tests when they were told that other ethnic groups routinely scored higher than they. Furthermore, Steele showed that students often disidentify (plead lack of interest) in an effort to protect themselves from stigmatization for low performance. Schools therefore face a daunting challenge. Not only must they be fair to all, but they must overcome the impediments placed in their way by the wider society to support higher achievement of minority students. Given this state of affairs, it is easy to understand the halting progress that has been made. Therefore, it is essential that whatever biases are present in schools be addressed.
Given that wider context, the detrimental impact of a prejudicial school environment has been of concern to researchers for several decades. The intangible and often subtle nature of bias and prejudice, however, makes this issue difficult to study. In the 1980s several researchers used hypothetical or simulated situations, such as eliciting judgments and expectations from teachers in response to photographs or profiles of children of different ethnicities. DeMeis and Turner (1978) found significant evidence of negative judgments based on perceptions of race. Baron et al. (1985) conducted a meta-analysis of such studies and replicated the results of DeMeis and Turner. Studies using similar methodologies with Mexican American students found that teachers expected special class placement significantly more frequently for those students than for Anglo American students (Aloia, 1981; Prieto and Zucker, 1981). The findings were supported by Shinn et al. (1987).