Higher expectations lead to student results

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It may sound novel, but simply believing students can achieve leads to increases in academic outcomes. Digging into data that spans thirteen years, researchers Seth Gershenson and Nicholas Papageorge recently found that teacher expectations of students’ degree attainment have a big impact on results.

By comparing teachers’ expectations of students’ likelihood of finishing college with their actual outcomes, we see the real influence of expectations. To sum it up: college completion increases with higher expectations from teachers.

Researchers parsed out the effect of expectations by comparing those applied to white and black students. The results show that racial bias leads many students of color to be perceived less likely to earn a college degree. And as teacher expectations are often tied to real results, they are less likely to do just that.

As the authors found: “Having a reading teacher who expects a student to complete a four-year college degree increases the probability that the student actually goes on to complete a degree by 18–20 percentage points. The effect of a math teacher’s expectation is somewhat smaller, at 12–15 percentage points.”

Essentially, believing a student will or won’t complete college affects their chances of earning a degree that opens so many doors. Thankfully, teachers are optimistic overall about students’ chances. Unfortunately, that optimism is doled out more to white students—especially in a largely white teaching force. Coupled with well-observed achievement and opportunity gaps, this gap in expectations leaves minority children even further behind.

In order to address this issue, we must change culture. Gershenson and Papageorge offer two policy shifts to harness the power of expectations. First, as my colleague Molly Weiner recently suggested, we must increase teacher diversity. Second, we must improve the quality and frequency of pre-service and in-service delivered to teachers around expectations and bias.

We cannot let negative perceptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. By merely changing our mindsets, we have the opportunity to change course for thousands of Texas students. When we expect more, we achieve more. That’s an attainable goal.

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