Teaching Profession Opinion

Changing Expectations Can Improve Student Achievement #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 16, 2015 4 min read
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Clearly, teachers are no longer purveyors of information, but schools can still be incubators for learning. Schools are places where questions are raised and answers explored, experiences are shared, and collaboration can be expected. It is the work of schools to develop students as learners, thinkers, and knowers, all with the goal of preparing them to be independent, informed, college and career ready.

In that spirit schools have adopted texts, software, methods, assessments, and interventions in order to improve student achievement. What about the educator’s state of mind? Has enough time been spent reflecting on expectations and bias that may be an invisible barrier to student success? To answer this, we wandered back to the research done in the 1960’s by Robert Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, along with school principal Lenore Jacobson, conducted an experiment to see if teachers’ expectations could affect students intellectual performance. Students were all tested at beginning of the experiment. Then, names of students were randomly taken from a hat. Teachers were told which students were ‘alleged’ to have historically shown intellectual gains. And, in short, those students actually showed intellectual gains...more than the children about whom nothing in particular had been said at the outset. They found that students actually “got smarter” when they were expected to get smarter by their teachers.

Rosenthal found four factors operating in the mediation of the self-fulfilling prophecies. What do teachers do differently with students for whom they have favorable expectations?

  1. Climate: Teachers tend to create a warmer climate for those students. They are nicer to them in both the things they say and in non-verbal communication.
  2. Input Factor: Teachers tend to teach more material to the students who they believe can learn more.
  3. Response Opportunity Factor: Students for whom the teachers have high expectations get more of an opportunity to respond. They are called on more frequently and, when they do call on them, they let them talk longer. Teachers help shape the answers with them, working together to form the response.
  4. Feedback: If more is expected, the child is praised more and positively reinforced more for getting the right answer and is given more differentiated feedback when they get the wrong answer. Conversely, teachers tend to accept low quality responses from children for whom they have low expectations.


What preceded this study was even more provocative. Rosenthal investigated ‘experimenter expectancy effects', the influence that a researcher can have on the outcome of an experiment. Rosenthal and colleague K.L.Fode asked two groups of students to test rats. The rats were characterized as being bred “maze bright” or “maze dull,” even though they were all standard lab rats and not specially bred one way or the other. The results of the study illustrated that the students unconsciously influenced the performance of the rats in order to fit the expected results between the “maze bright” and “maze dull” rats. The results? The expectation the experimenters had in their head translated into a set of tiny behavior changes in the way they touched the rats, and in turn, the way that the rats behaved (Invisibilia).

The results of these two experiments point to a missed opportunity that costs nothing and may hold more promise for raising student achievement than one can imagine. Are educators silently and unconsciously communicating to students their concerns about curriculum and assessment and belief that they may not achieve? How much of the teachers’ expectations is influencing student outcome? How much of what we think is silently transmitted, as was in both experiments, to each other and to the students? Might a difference be made if we believed that all students could reach high academic standards? Might a difference be made if we spoke out loud about those students we believed couldn’t learn or keep pace? Would there be colleagues to challenge our belief, and, in turn, could we change what we communicate to those students? There are those teachers who seem to be able to reach and stretch all of their students. We wonder if it is because they believe each of their students can reach their high expectations and silently communicate that. Do you know what is being communicated? What is it that the students are hearing?

We have all heard highly respected teachers and leaders talk about the students who can’t make it. Seldom, are they thinking about the way in which they are contributing to that failure by their belief. What if we held instead a belief that said maybe this year or maybe in this classroom, success can be found? Is this what Carol Dweck’s mindset is about as well? Changing the way teachers think about their students and their expectations of them may be the key, the missing piece to all the hard work being done in schools to help all students achieve. We think it is worth a try, but we also know that changing beliefs is harder than changing assessments.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.