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Research Review: Teacher Expectations Matter

A research review by the Education Commission of the States concludes that teachers' expectations—often influenced by factors such as race, ethnicity, and family income levels—can significantly affect students' academic performance. Negative teacher expectations account for an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the variance in student achievement and contribute to achievement gaps between white and minority students, according to the findings.

The ECS's brief, which was published last month, emphasizes that learning opportunities are often dependent on a teacher's expectations for an individual student. For instance, it states:

A teacher might set lower standards for historically low-achieving students or he/she might perceive various students' behaviors differently. A delayed response from a non-minority, more affluent student might be perceived as thoughtful consideration, while the same delayed response from a minority, lower-income student might be considered as a lack of understanding. These differences in teacher behavior convey expectations to students, which can significantly affect their own behavior in ways that impede academic achievement.

To be clear, the idea of there being a strong correlation between teacher expectations and student achievement is nothing new. The ECS says the link was explored in a 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom. The group also looked at four other studies, published between 2006 and 2010, that highlighted the impact of teacher expectations on performance.

The brief explains that, while the 5 to 10 percent variance is "relatively small, the effects on individual students, especially minorities and low-income, can be great."

In what's really the meat of the brief, ECS offers recommendations for policymakers and education leaders to consider in light of the findings. These broad propositions include:


  • Using implicit attitude assessments to identify and weed out out teacher candidates with "inflexible perceptions" about student ability.

  • Teaching pre-service teachers about the "risks of inequitable expectations" and offering training to amend negative perceptions.

  • Tracking current teachers' interactions with students and providing professional development to help them improve those interactions.

  • Adopting teacher evaluation systems that measure expectations and perceptions of students.

  • Ensuring PD around the Common Core State Standards emphasizes the need for high expectations paired with the high standards.

When asked why ECS pushed this research review out now, Chief of Staff Kathy Christie referred to the need to raise awareness about instructional issues while states begin implementing the Common Core State Standards.

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