Do Academic Expectations Matter?

The supposed secret of many successful charter schools is a school culture that places high expectations — usually graduating from college — on every student. Yet the subject of expectations tends to be a lot more common in policy circles than among researchers. In fact, there’s not a lot of longitudinal research linking the isolated effects of high expectations to academic outcomes, nor is there much research explaining the mechanism through which expectations lead to attainment.

Perhaps the best research on expectations comes from a recent paper by Weihua Fan and Christopher Wolters of the University of Houston. Using data from the NCES Educational Longitudinal Study, they examined the educational attainment of U.S. students who were in 10th grade in 2002. They found that high expectations decrease dropout through the way they mediate the influence of motivation and perceived academic ability. In other words, students who are highly motivated or believe in their academic ability still need to have the expectation that they’ll finish high school. The effects were strong enough that when expectations were controlled for, neither perceived ability nor academic motivation had a statistically significant relationship with high school completion.

So to answer the million dollar question, yes, expectations can matter, but it’s worth noting that they’re not a silver bullet that will help every single student. For some students expectations will have no effect. For others they will have a negative effect.

The idea that school characteristics have different effects on different students is important. One thing it does is make a strong case for school choice that has nothing to do with competition or market incentives. Imagine a family that has one good school option suddenly gets a second option of equivalent quality. Just because the schools have the same average performance it doesn’t mean the schools will be the same for their child. Perhaps one school uses more technology, has a better basketball court, or assigns more homework. Perhaps it has a stronger culture of high expectations. None of these things are inherently good or bad, nor do they automatically raise the average performance of all students, but they will be good or bad for individual students. And so even though a random student wouldn’t be better off at one school or the other, individual students will be better off at one school rather than the other.

I know I’m a broken record on this, but the big takeaway is that giving students multiple school options is almost always a good thing. It’s detrimental to the school choice movement to have been latched at the wrist to a polarizing free-market ideology because it obscures this fact. School choice advocates would be wise to emphasize student differences and push for urban policies that efficiently allocate schools in a way that gives students multiple options.
Fan, W., & Wolters, C. (2012). School motivation and high school dropout: The mediating role of educational expectation British Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjep.12002


2 Responses to Do Academic Expectations Matter?

  1. john says:

    Just discovered your web site, how do we get you a journalism job at the WP of NYT? A delight to read!

  2. Pingback: School Choice Increases Student Engagement | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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