Students from low-income families and students of color may perform poorly in school because their teachers simply do not believe in them.
A study published Tuesday by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, or CAP, looks at whether teacher expectations produce a Pygmalian effect that influences student achievement. Researchers found that students whose teachers expected them to graduate from college were significantly more likely to do so.
But teachers had lower expectations for disadvantaged students and students of color, the researchers found. Teachers thought a college degree was 47 percent less likely for African-American students than for white peers, and 53 percent less likely for low-income students than for students from more affluent families. Teachers thought Hispanic students were 42 percent less likely than white students to graduate from college, the study found.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that white students are almost twice as likely to graduate from college in four years than black students. The new CAP study used data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study, which followed a representative group of high school students from 2002 to 2012. Researchers asked 10th-grade teachers if they expected their students to graduate from college, and compared the results with whether these students actually earned college degrees.
The CAP report carefully avoids assuming that teacher expectations cause student achievement. Teachers may have an accurate sense of who is likely to graduate from college, regardless of race or economic class, the researchers note. Teachers with low expectations of students may be more likely to teach in underperforming schools. Also, teachers’ low expectations of minority and disadvantaged students may reflect these students’ actual underperformance, possibly a result of broader education system problems.
Even after taking other factors into consideration, including students' motivation and course-taking patterns, “teachers’ expectations and students’ college-going outcomes had a significant relationship, and teacher expectations were tremendously predictive of student college completion rates,” the study found.
Ulrich Boser, a senior research fellow for CAP, told The Huffington Post that he was surprised by the strength of the results.
“I expected to find something –- we had seen other data that linked teacher expectations with just remaining enrolled in college,” said Boser. “For us, what was surprising was that individuals [whose teachers had high expectations] were three times more likely to graduate from college.”
He continued, “If you’re told you’re going to graduate from college, that could make you more likely to take certain actions.”
In terms of race, Boser noted that teachers and students from different backgrounds may misunderstand each other.
“Look at racial demographics,” said Boser. “Most of our teachers are white, but most students are of color. To not understand where people are coming from can lead to these types of issues.”
The study says the Common Core State Standards may be a remedy. The standards have been adopted in a majority of states to raise education standards and make sure students across the country are held to the same benchmarks.
The possible link between teacher expectations and student achievement is not new. In the 1960s, an experiment at a California elementary school dubbed the idea that high expectations lead to high performance the Pygmalion effect, after the Greek myth. In the experiment, teachers were told some students possessed exceptional intelligence -- even though there was no evidence they were above average. Nevertheless, those students showed unparalleled achievement by the end of the year.
A previous study from University of Virginia and Rutgers University researchers found that teachers' expectations of students was a more powerful predictor of future success than parents' expectations and students' expectations of themselves.
“The United States needs to raise its expectations for students -- as well as educators," the CAP study says. "The Pygmalion Effect can go a long way toward helping our children succeed in college and in life.”