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Limits of High Expectations for Students

By Walt Gardner — November 27, 2017 1 min read

I don’t doubt that teacher expectations play a role in student performance. But I question if they are nearly as powerful a factor as believed (“Research every teacher should know: setting expectations,” The Guardian, Nov. 10).

I have reference now to a study finding that when teachers were falsely told some of their students had been identified as potential high achievers when, in fact, they were chosen at random, they posted larger gains. But the researchers didn’t specify by how much. That’s an important factor in evaluating the study.

More important, however, is the limitations of high expectations. If teachers inherit a class of remedial students, I don’t believe having high expectations for what they can achieve will produce dramatic improvements. Yes, they would likely do somewhat better than if their teachers expected nothing from them. But I say the results will not be nearly as impressive as researchers assert.

The so-called Pygmalion effect (high expectations) is the opposite of the Golem effect (low expectations). Although there will always be exceptions, most students can improve only somewhat. I had many remedial classes during the 28 years I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I tried to encourage them to think of themselves as capable of doing more than they had in the past. But all of my exhortations were not enough to significantly move the needle. That’s why I prefer the term realistic expectations.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.