As a standard practice at our school (and I'm sure many other schools), when we get a new a student during the year, the teacher reaches out to the former school for information about the student that may be helpful in better teaching them. But is this information truly helpful? Or does it create bias about the students abilities and personality before they've been given a chance to demonstrate otherwise?
Mrs. Fontenot reached out to Jerome's former school when he arrived a few months back. Phone messages were not returned, and e-mails received no response. Jerome was a little rough around the edges when he arrived, but in a matter of weeks his effort in class began to increase, his quality of work improved, and his behavior was a non-issue. He went from one of the lower small groups for reading to one of the higher groups is less than a quarters time. Mrs. Fontenot confessed he had become one her favorite students, and certainly one that she had immense pride for his accomplishments.
Then she heard from his former school. Jamal's former teacher had been out on a maternity leave. She apologized for not getting back sooner, and commented that by now, Mrs. Fontenot had no doubt learned that Jamal was lazy, often disruptive, and disrespectful when re-directed.
Imagine if the teacher had heard these things before Jamal had been in class a week? Would the teacher have had lower expectations? Would she have treated his minor misbehaviors different ("I'm going to set a tone with him right away!")? A bevy of research suggests it would have- to the detriment of Jamal.
While collecting information to help better understand students is done with sound logic and wonderful intentions, the unintended consequences of this habit deserve reflection. Different adults connect with different sorts of kids in different ways. Because a students second grade teacher couldn't stand him/her, does not mean that a different person a year later will feel the same. Schools that systematically organize conversations between former and future teachers, or have teachers call former schools are seriously jeopardizing children's opportunities to find success in a new environment.
Low expectations are already a hurdle many students have to overcome. Let's be cautious as a profession about creating such expectations in advance.