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Study: 'Pygmalion Effect' Links Teacher Expectations to Student Success

A new study from the Center for American Progress concludes that teachers' expectations for their students are strongly correlated with students' graduation rates. Unfortunately, the study also says that teachers don't necessarily have high expectations for all of their students, especially poorer students and those of color.

The study focuses on the Pygmalion Effect, the theory holding that higher expectations of a person lead to higher performance. The opposite can also be true: If low expectations are placed on someone, they're more likely to perform poorly. This means that a teacher's faith, or lack thereof, in a student's abilities may influence the student's future achievement.

Drawing on the results of a long-term study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the CAP study finds that students whose high school teachers had high expectations of them graduated from college at three times the rate of those whose teachers had low expectations.

Teacher expectations, according to the study, turned out to be "tremendously predictive," more so than student motivation or effort. Teachers, the study found, were also able to predict a student's college success with greater accuracy than parents or even the students themselves.

However, the study also reports that teachers generally have lower expectations of students of color and students from high-poverty backgrounds. Secondary teachers viewed high-poverty students as 53 percent less likely to graduate from college than their classmates from wealthier backgrounds. Black and Hispanic students were also deemed 47 and 42 percent less likely to graduate than white students, respectively.

The CAP researchers are careful to note that, in this instance, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. "It is possible," they write, "that teachers are simply making accurate predications given previous performance. In other words, one cannot rule out the possibility that teacher accuracy, rather than influence, can explain the predictive nature of teacher expectations for students' academic outcomes."

This is especially true where marginalized students are concerned. From the results of the study, it is unclear whether teachers base their expectations of poor, black, and Hispanic students on the fact that these groups are, statistically speaking, less likely to succeed academically or if there's an underlying bias at play. However, the study also notes that some educators have low expectations for low-income students of color even before entering the classroom.

Even if these expectations are predictive rather than causative, the CAP study emphasizes the importance of teachers having high expectations for their students. College-preparation programs and "rigorous academic opportunities"—which are themselves generally connected to higher expectations—can also increase the likelihood for success of students from all backgrounds, the study contends.

The authors also call for more "rigorous training" of teachers to improve "instructional capacity" and educators' understanding of the potential impact of their expectations. In particular, they cite the need for additional "hands-on training in high-performing, high-poverty schools."

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