Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement

A recent (Delaware) Journal Sentinel article (How to fight resegregation and inequality in our schools: Dialogue Delaware) presents a speech given by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice, Leo Strine, at the University of Delaware (9/22/17). Chief Justice Strine offers a litany of findings related to a significant achievement gap in Delaware between advantaged and disadvantaged students where a disproportionate number of the latter are students of color.

With a little effort, one can find studies based upon results from other states and municipalities that have been tabulated over several decades that reveal similar achievement gaps. The observation I have most frequently encountered over the years from educators and policy makers is that the low achievement of disadvantaged students is directly related to the ramifications of poverty. While there are many statistical studies that have demonstrated a strong positive correlation between poverty and student achievement (as measured by standardized testing, which in and of itself is problematic), correlations do not prove causation, and I suggest that the things Strine suggests—more experienced teachers teaching disadvantaged students, consolidating districts, increasing school activities, and more hours and days of learning—do not address the deepest underlying cause of the achievement gap.

What is that cause if not related to the factors outlined by Strine or the ramifications of poverty? I do NOT believe the cause is the assertion I have encountered over the years at cocktail parties, family reunions, formal and informal faculty meetings, and in policy level meetings with district-level administrators: it is the students’ lives outside of school that determine whether or not a student can meet society’s expectations to perform at a high level (this assertion is also made by the Journal Sentinel via a link in the article noted above).

I also do NOT believe the underlying cause is that asserted by kitchen racists (who would never say the following publicly) that we only need to look as far as the “Bell Curve,” i.e. black students are genetically unable to perform at the same level as white students.

Both of these assertions can be wholeheartedly rejected (perhaps a summary of that research should be focus of a future blog), but I DO believe that the number of citizens and educators who believe such things is what DOES explain the achievement gap: there is plenty of support to conclude that STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO TEACHER EXPECTATIONS.

Here are two cases from my compendium of experiences (my non-scientific sample of one) for you to consider:

  • In A Vision for Wilmington Schools (Delaware) in 2015, Matthew Albright of the News Journal reported that a redistricting plan “drew outrage from teachers—who felt they were being blamed for poor performance, when poverty was the real issue…”
  • At the conclusion of a Mastery Charter School (Philadelphia) faculty meeting, I observed what I was told was the traditional way that such meetings concluded: the assembled faculty and administrators raised plastic cups filled with sparkling cider, repeated the Mastery Mission Statement (with zest), and then shouted, “No Excuses!”

You may find it interesting that the disadvantaged students taught by the outraged teachers have consistently failed to show sufficient progress on Delaware State Testing Program exams, while the Mastery teachers’ students (from the most economically challenged neighborhoods in Philadelphia) are continuing to show significant growth on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. (Note: these successful schools are “Renaissance Schools,” which means that when Mastery took them over from the School District of Philadelphia, Mastery was required to keep all of the disadvantaged students—the vast majority of whom are children of color—who consistently performed dismally on state tests when they were enrolled in a SDP school, i.e. those kids came from the same neighborhoods and the same homes and were taught in the same facility—there is no “cherry picking” in the application process; Mastery cannot summarily dismiss challenging students—and yet, those students are meeting and exceeding expectations).

If you were a economically and educationally challenged parent in an economically challenged neighborhood (heck, in your economically-challenged world), who would you want to teach your child, a teacher who proclaims they’re not responsible for your economically-disadvantaged child’s performance, or a teacher who proclaims, “no excuses”?

I would not be writing this post if I had simply intuited the relationship between expectations and achievement; I’m writing it because American educators, policy makers, and other influential persons have disregarded one of the most intensely studied and verified phenomena in classrooms (since 1964!). If I have piqued your curiosity, I strongly encourage you to view the following:

If the relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement is such a well-documented phenomenon, you may be asking yourself, why aren’t educators doing what needs to be done to change their own expectations? I refer you to this quote from Francis Cummins Lockwood (1913):

We must review with profound respect the infinite capacity of the human mind to resist the introduction of useful knowledge.

Another more important reason is that changing expectations must occur by changing teacher behavior. There are countless ways a teacher interacts with students every day, and each nuanced way can convey expectations. As the Morning Edition story explains, just telling professionals about the link between expectations and achievement does not change teacher behavior. What is required is an involved, supported, self-analysis by teachers of their daily behavior.

I suggest that school districts and state departments of education have demonstrated, thus far, that they do not have the organizational will and/or understanding needed to pursue “an involved, supported, self-analysis by teachers of their daily behavior” that is known to be the “thing” most likely to improve student achievement. (Note: the L.A. County Office of Education, the originator of TESA or Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement training is a notable exception; educational leaders can contact customer service at PESA-TESA@lacoe.edu or (562) 803-8227 for information about training.)

Recent and profound concern for disadvantaged students of color within the Wilmington, Delaware, city limits has prompted politicians and others to respond by supporting redistricting to better take advantage of school district, community, and parental support for what has been a divided city educationally since a 1978 desegregation decree. It is this notion that Chief Justice Strine’s words support; unfortunately, drawing new district lines and reassigning leadership will not bring about improved student achievement. It did not work in 1978 and the years that followed, and it will not work now. What policy makers need to realize is that disadvantaged students who are not meeting our expectations, are actually living up to the actual expectations of their teachers.

Additional Reading:

Beating the Odds: Exploring the 90/90/90 Phenomenon. Published online: 5/4/2012. Equity and Excellence in Education. Vol 45, Issue 2.

Excellence without equity is not excellence—it is hypocrisy. Further research is needed to document the specific strategies that principals of “excellent, equitable schools” use to confront and change past practices anchored in open and residual racism and class discrimination. (From the following…)

Brown, K. (2010). Schools of excellence and equity? Using equity audits as a tool to expose a flawed system of recognition. International Journal of Educational Policy & Leadership, 5(5) 11.

Nicholas Papageorge and Seth Gershenson. 2016. Do Teacher Expectations Matter? The Brookings Institute.

Try Googling “Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement.”

3 thoughts on “Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.