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Thompson: Democratic Think Tank's Supposed Faith in Teachers' Expectations

The power of teachers’ expectations is an issue that must be carefully studied and discussed. It is especially important that educators engage in a sober self-reflection on the expectations we hold for students, especially poor children of color. 

That is why educators from all perspectives should join in condemning another simplistic paper by the Center for American Progress (CAP). After rejecting the latest example of the CAP's teacher-bashing, we should all double down on the study and discussion of teachers' expectations, and seek to improve our ability to improve education outcomes for all children, especially students who traditionally have been stigmatized. 

CAP's The Power of the Pygmalion Effect ostensibly supports Common Core while implicitly blaming teachers for the achievement gap. Authors Ulrich Boser, Megan Wilhelm, and Robert Hanna proclaim that the 10th grade students who they studied who “had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations.” 

Such a claim should require a complex research model which takes into account family, peer effects, and systemic factors that contribute to college readiness. Boser et. al, however, attribute those differential outcomes to teachers’ answer to a 2002 NAEP question about their students’ chances to succeed in higher education. Their definition of “expectations” was based on how teachers answered the question “'how far in school … [do] you expect this student to get,’ including high school, college, and beyond.” Their paper made only a cursory effort to parse the actual accuracy of those opinions. 

It is hard for me to believe that the point of the CAP papers is not to prompt ledes such as this one in the Huffington Post by Rebecca Klein: "Students from low-income families and students of color may perform poorly in school because their teachers simply do not believe in them." 

In one of their few footnotes, Boser et.al write, “A growing body of research shows that some teachers have low expectations for low-income students and students of color.” 

Such a claim misrepresents the thrust of Teachers’ Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, by Lee Jussin and Kent Harber. In fact, Jussin’s and Harber’s excellent study is a balanced and scholarly refutation of the implication by Boser et. al that it is teachers’ low expectations, not structural problems, that keep the achievement gap from being closed. (Jussin and Harber also refute extreme positions on the other side of the bitter battle over the power of expectations.) 

Jussin and Harber note that this message on the power of the Pygmalion Effect has “seemed to provide scientific credibility and strong rhetorical ammunition for pundits, policymakers, social activists, and reformers.” They conclude that this message has been “clear and simple,” but “it is not clear, however, that the evidence justifies condemnations of teachers for their supposed role in creating injustices.” 

These objective scholars further write that the term “Teacher expectations … has been known to inspire righteous indignation for teachers’ supposed role in creating inequalities.” They say that the claims issued in the polarized debate prompted by Rosenthal and Jacobson’s The Pygmalion Effect have been “used to justify arguments claiming that expectancy effects are powerful and pervasive, intelligence is primarily environmentally determined, and relatively simple interventions can improve student achievement.”

In fairness, Boser et. al acknowledge: 

There is no doubt a significant methodological issue here, and teacher expectations of disadvantaged students might simply reflect those students’ lower levels of academic achievement. Put more simply, educators’ expectations might simply be a mirror of the broader problems of the nation’s education system. 

But, according to their explication of their methodology, they make little or no effort to address that significant methodological issue that they acknowledge. 

And, despite their obligatory provisos that teachers might not deserve all of the blame for low expectations, they conclude with the subtler jab, “It seems, then, that teachers think that high expectations are important, but they are not always confident that everyone in their classrooms can achieve academic success.” 

I don’t deny that I have a bias. Although I welcome a thoughtful discussion of the Pygmalion Effect, frankly, I am angered by the long string of charges by so many reformers that teachers are to blame for poor educational outcomes and inequities.   So, I will close with Jussin’s and Harber’s abstract and let readers decide if the CAP's paper is fair and balanced or if it another prop for its teacher- and union-bashing corporate reform agenda: 

This article shows that 35 years of empirical research on teacher expectations justifies the following conclusions: (a) Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom do occur, but these effects are typically small, they do not accumulate greatly across perceivers or over time, and they may be more likely to dissipate than accumulate; (b) powerful self-fulfilling prophecies may selectively occur among students from stigmatized social groups; (c) whether self-fulfilling prophecies affect intelligence, and whether they in general do more harm than good, remains unclear, and (d) teacher expectations may predict student outcomes more because these expectations are accurate than because they are self-fulfilling. Implications for future research, the role of self-fulfilling prophecies in social problems, and perspectives emphasizing the power of erroneous beliefs to create social reality are discussed.



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"Such a claim should require a complex research model which takes into account family, peer effects, and systemic factors that contribute to college readiness. Boser et. al, however, attribute those differential outcomes to teachers’ answer to a 2002 NAEP question about their students’ chances to succeed in higher education."

Did you read the report? The authors did in fact account for a host of factors in addition to teachers' expectations.

Have you ready any reputable studies on that subject and seen what is the minimal amount to taken into account factors other than the answer to one question? When you start where they start, an answer to a Naep question, and run a few regression controls, I'd say that counts as little or no real effort to account for other factors. They fall so far short of accepted methodological standards that their paper can't be read as anything but another anti-teacher blast.

John, thank you for this. When I first read the coverage on this "study," it amazed me that reputable media would even bother to report on it.

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