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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Education Filled With Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?

By Peter DeWitt — August 18, 2013 4 min read
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Recently, when I was in California working with Jim Popham, I had a bit of a driving issue. Meaning...I got lost a few times. Ok, I got lost almost every time I got into the car over the four day period, and yes, I had a GPS. In my defense, for which I have very little, LA is an intimidating place to drive.

Most times, my passengers (Sharon Lawrence and Don “Bart” Bartalo) laughed at (with) me and tried to help. Not that either of them had driven in LA before, and neither of them offered to drive. Unfortunately, one time they tried their best to get as far away from me as possible.

The group working with Jim was heading to dinner one night and I offered Dr. Popham a ride. For a variety of reasons, he chose to follow us to the restaurant instead. We were almost at the destination and I missed the parking lot and ended up at a strip mall. On the way home, as we were all leaving at the same time, I asked Jim if he wanted to follow us back to the hotel. I’m still not sure why I took on the responsibility considering that I am from upstate, NY and Jim taught at UCLA for decades.

As he gave it some thought, Jim said, “I’m a little worried you’re going to get lost again Peter.” Jim is a nice guy so he decided to follow me, until I went past the entrance to the 101, which is a major highway in the LA area. Fortunately for Jim he decided to turn and get on the highway. Ultimately, he made it back to the hotel before us.

The next morning I hadn’t even sat down before Jim had a comment about my driving skills (I really never get lost on the East Coast). I told him that because of his self-fulfilling prophecy that I would get lost, I was bound to fail. He had a few comments in return.

Since that moment, although I was kidding with Jim, I began to think about the self-fulfilling prophecy we are now living in, and how we need to get ourselves out of it.

Are We Living in a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
Truth be told, I wonder if we are living in a world of self-fulfilling prophecies. Educational reform critics tout that the public school system is failing, and after awhile many people believe it is true, even though the research seems very one-sided. The US gets compared to other countries that don’t seem to have our level of poverty. Educational reform comparisons are often a case of apples and oranges.

Reform efforts focus on how we are “failing.” Most educators focus on continuous improvement but it gets difficult when you feel as though no matter what you do, you will never be good enough. Pre-service teachers enter a system that they hear is failing, so there should be no surprise that they last less than five years in that system.

Recently, in New York State, our scores on state assessments were lower than ever before, which happened to be predicted by our state education leaders. Months before the tests were dropped on the doorstep of schools, we were told that our students would have lower scores but we shouldn’t worry.

At the state and national level our results seem to reflect the self-fulfilling prophecy of those in charge, and I just wonder when the dialogue will change. Teachers, students and school leaders are at risk every year of showing up to school days filled with the words of others telling us that we are not good enough, even though the signs we see tell us differently.

And I worry, that school leaders do the same to teachers and teachers may do the same thing to students.

Do We Have Self-fulfilling Prophecies for Students and Teachers?
The reality is that, as horrible as some of these reform efforts are, we can all learn from our present system. In leadership classes, aspiring school leaders are often told that they can learn as much from bad leaders as they can from good ones; it just might mean they are learning what not to do.

We should look at the self-fulfilling prophecies we may have for others. School leaders should reflect on the formal observations they have ahead of them. Do they have a self-fulfilling prophecy of what teachers will do well and which ones will do poorly before they ever step foot in the classroom?

Do teachers base their understanding of a student on the comments of previous teachers? Do they look at some students as the ones who will always struggle just because the past teacher focused on what the child couldn’t do instead of what they could? Despite the efforts of common standards and unified textbooks, teachers are not all the same. Some teachers love the struggling students while others like the gifted.

In Closing the Teaching Gap (Corwin Press), Don Bartalo writes, “Beliefs support the methods and techniques that teachers use. Beliefs are based on principles of learning developed from years of experience and research.” The beliefs that teachers have about a student will directly impact the way that student learns just as the belief a school leader may have about a teacher will impact what the school leader sees in the classroom.

Bartalo ends by saying, “Using an analogy to Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (1978), the gap between beliefs about learning and actual teaching practice is where an instructional leader must focus her efforts.”

In the end we can all learn from self-fulfilling prophecies. We can learn to change the ones we have about our students, staff and even ourselves. We can also try to change the larger conversation about how schools are failing because a majority of them are not. Perhaps we can find our own “inner GPS” to direct ourselves away from our self-fulfilling prophecies.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.