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Role of Teacher Expectations Is Overblown

There's no doubt that what teachers expect from their students has an effect on their outcomes ("Do teacher expectations matter?" Brookings Institution, Sep. 16).  But I question whether the issue is as powerful as it appears.

A new study, the IZA Discussion Paper, concludes that negative teacher biases can function like self-fulfilling prophecies.  I agree.  Yet I hasten to point out that high expectations by themselves will not result in dramatically higher outcomes. That's because not all students can achieve at the same academic level.  It's what Charles Murray correctly calls "educational romanticism" in Real Education.

If the issue were restricted to athletics, the absurdity would be far more apparent.  Can high expectations by a high school basketball coach in getting all his players to be able to slam dunk result in the achievement of that objective?  Yet when the venue is an academic classroom, the answer is different.  I'd like to know why. 

In the final analysis, I think the ad campaign from a decade ago still says it best: "Be all you can be  ... in the Army."  That means the Army accepts that not all recruits can achieve at the same high level.  What they can do is to achieve at the highest level they alone are capable of achieving.  That's a vital distinction lost in the current debate.

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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.

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