When teachers have high expectations for students, those students do better long-term—they are more likely to earn a college degree, less likely to have a teen pregnancy, and less likely to receive public assistance as a young adult.
That’s according to a new study published today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes school choice and academic rigor. The study also found that high school teachers in charter or private schools are more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to expect their students to complete college degrees.
These findings are more proof of the importance of teachers in students’ lives, and they also have implications for districts’ policies around grading standards, homework, or even promotion from grade to grade—some of which were softened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“High expectations are a good thing,” said Seth Gershenson, a professor of public policy at American University and the author of the report. “Not only are they a good thing, but charter schools have more of a good thing.”
Study examines schools across many sectors
The study analyzed nationally representative survey data from the federal 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study and the 2009 High School Longitudinal Study, which track cohorts of 10th graders over time. Every student in the ELS was assessed by at least two teachers who were asked, “How far in school do you expect this student to get?”
There were more than 15,000 students in the two surveys, although only about 500 were enrolled in a charter school—which made the estimates for charters less precise than those for traditional public schools, a limitation of the study.
The study also controlled for school and student characteristics, including students’ race and sex, whether they receive special education services, family income, the mother’s educational attainment, language spoken at home, and the standardized math score at the end of 9th grade. This allowed the researchers to draw clearer comparisons between school sectors, which tend to serve very different populations: Private schools typically serve students from higher-income families, while charters serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools, for example.
Without adjusting for those characteristics, the study found that teachers in traditional public high schools expected slightly fewer than half of their students to complete four-year college degrees. Private school teachers expected about 80 percent of their students to complete such degrees, and in charter schools, there was a sizable difference between math and English teachers’ beliefs—63 percent of charter math teachers believed their students would earn a college degree, compared to 53 percent of charter English teachers.
After adjusting for student and school characteristics, the study found that the private school advantage over traditional public schools had shrunk by about one-third, which Gershenson attributed to removing the household income disparity between school sectors. However, the gap between charter school and traditional public school teachers’ expectations actually increased after those adjustments.
Charter and private school teachers were also more likely than traditional public school teachers to be overly optimistic about their students’ likelihood of success.
“In general, teachers are optimistic, in that they expect more students to complete college than actually do,” Gershenson said. “That’s OK—it’s actually more than OK, it’s good. That optimism in the form of high expectations does improve outcomes.”
And students in charter and private schools are more likely than their district counterparts to believe that their teachers think all students can be successful, the study found.
Teacher expectations matter a lot, no matter the school type
Regardless of school sector, teacher expectations matter a lot, the study found.
For example, having a math teacher who fully expects a student to earn a college degree—instead of a teacher who thinks the student has no chance—appears to increase that student’s odds of college completion by about 17 percentage points.
High expectations from teachers also reduce the chances that students will have children before the age of 20 by about 3 to 6 percentage points and reduce their probability of receiving public assistance at age 26 by about 5 percentage points.
“It leads to students believing in themselves,” Gershenson said. Otherwise they might think: “If a teacher doesn’t think I can do it, they know more than me, so what’s the point of trying hard?”
“A small part of it might be not wanting to let the teacher down,” he said. “But I think a bigger part is just changing the students’ whole mindset—getting them engaged in school and knowing and believing that if they do get the work in, they can thrive.”
These results don’t prove cause and effect since students weren’t randomly assigned to teachers with high expectations. And they are likely magnified because of the binary nature of the comparison—teachers who have zero faith that their student will complete a college degree versus teachers who are completely certain their students will do so.
Even so, past research by Gershenson and others has found similar findings about the importance of teacher expectations. For example, a 2020 study by Gershenson found that students perform better on end-of-year standardized tests when their teachers are tough graders.
But past research has also found that white teachers tend to have lower expectations for students of color, an effect that can cause a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Gershenson said this effect could have slightly influenced the results of the new study, since charter schools have more Black teachers than traditional public schools.
Charter schools have a reputation for a strict school culture
Some charter school chains have long had a reputation for a culture of “no excuses,” which some educators and experts say can lead to overly harsh discipline. However, Gershenson said that what the study measures is not necessarily tied to that type of school culture.
“You can believe in students’ potential ... without having a rigid uniform policy or a rigid attendance policy,” he said.
He argued that school district leaders should take steps to boost their staff’s expectations, such as by screening for this in the hiring process or incorporating it into professional development or evaluations.
“The importance of high expectations are universal, and they are going to matter in just about any school, in any part of the country or the world,” Gershenson said.
The study comes just as students work to regain academic ground that was lost during the pandemic and districts think of ways to support them.
Fordham analysts believe that it should cause districts to rethink changes made at the height of the pandemic. Amber Northern, who is the senior vice president for research, and David Griffith, who is the associate director for research, wrote in an introduction that schools lowered expectations for students by softening grading policies or reducing the amount of homework assigned.
“If we’re serious about getting our students back on track, we must be even more serious about getting our expectations for them back on track,” they wrote. “Muttering the phrase ‘high expectations for all students’ just doesn’t cut it.”
Still, Gershenson said he’s optimistic that teachers will retain their high expectations as schools continue to emerge from the pandemic.
“A lot of teachers are aware that high expectations matter, and I’m hopeful that COVID isn’t going to cause teachers to lower their expectations in a counter-productive way,” he said.