Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement

(Updated 2018 post)

A 2017 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article (How to fight resegregation and inequality in our schools: Dialogue Delaware) is an adaptation of a speech given by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice, Leo Strine, at the University of Delaware on September 22, 2017. Chief Justice Strine offered a litany of findings related to a significant achievement gap in Delaware between advantaged and disadvantaged students where a disproportionate number of the latter were 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 inverse correlation between poverty and student achievement (the greater the poverty, the lower 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 assumed absence of the interventions outlined by Strine or to 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 meetings with district and state policy makers—that 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 cited above).

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

Both of these assertions can be wholeheartedly rejected because of significant evidence to the contrary, but I DO believe that the number of citizens and educators who DO believe such things is what DOES explain the achievement gap: there is significant research that supports the conclusion that STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO TEACHER EXPECTATIONS.

Here are two cases from 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 2014 Mastery Charter School faculty meeting (Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia), I observed what I was told was the traditional way that such meetings concluded. The assembled faculty and administrators stood, 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 New Castle County teachers had consistently failed to show sufficient progress on Delaware State Testing Program exams, while the Mastery Charter teachers’ students (in multiple schools in the most economically challenged neighborhoods in Philadelphia) were continuing to show significant growth on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams.

Note: these successful charter schools are referred to by the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) as “Renaissance Schools,” schools awarded to charter school management companies after those schools have been designated as “failing.” For example (if memory serves), at Simon Gratz in the year prior to its being designated for takeover, fewer than 10% of its students had met the minimum PSSA pass points in both math and language arts.

The Renaissance guidelines require that when a charter school management company takes over a failed SDP school, the charter entity (e.g. Mastery Charter Schools) must enroll all of the students that had previously been enrolled in the former SDP school. In the case of Simon Gratz High School, this meant a student body—the vast majority of whom were and are disadvantaged children of color—that came from the same neighborhoods and the same homes that naysayers claimed were the reasons for those kids’ lack of achievement.

I first visited Simon Gratz in 2016, the second year after the Master Charter takeover, and that spring, the Philadelphia Inquirer cited Gratz for being in the top 5 schools in terms of improvement on the PSSAs in the entire Delaware Valley (which contains several hundred schools in five counties, including Philadelphia County). This remarkable achievement came despite the fact that Gratz was unable to “cherry pick” applicants (unlike charter schools in some cities, e.g. Wilmington, Delaware) or to summarily dismiss especially challenging students.

The only significant systemic difference that I was able to discern between a Renaissance School and the SDP school from which it had evolved, was that Mastery Charter was free to hire a new faculty of their own choosing (Mastery was required to interview SDP teachers who were interested in a position, but it was not required under Renaissance regulations to hire them). I was told that Mastery’s application and interview process was specifically designed to identify applicants whose responses affirmed that they would be most likely to have high expectations of students, regardless of “the baggage” those students brought to school. “Baggage” is a word I was often to hear experienced teachers use as a rationalization for disappointing student achievement at the Delaware high school for which I had been hired as a principal with the responsibility to restructure a school that had left its disadvantaged, African American students behind.

If you were an economically and educationally challenged parent in an economically challenged neighborhood—hell, in your economically challenged world!—who would you want to teach your child, a teacher who proclaims they’re not responsible for your child’s performance because he or she is poor, or a teacher who proclaims, “no excuses”?

I would not be writing this post if I have simply intuited the relationship between teacher expectations and achievement; I’m writing it because too many 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; when I wrote the first iteration of this post, educational leaders could contact customer service at PESA-TESA@lacoe.edu or (562) 803-8227 for information about training: I hope that continues to be the case.)

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.

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. Source of the following quote:

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.

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

Consider Googling: “Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement.”

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