Teacher Expectations Have a Stronger Impact On Low-Income Students

In their 1968 book Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson presented their groundbreaking research that showed teacher expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies. If two students start the school year at the same achievement level, the student the teacher is told is a high achiever will make more gains than the student the teacher believes is a low achiever.

Over the years researchers have confirmed that teacher expectations have small to moderate effects on student achievement, but more recent work suggests that the effects may not be the same for all students. For example, a new study by Temple’s Nicole Sorhagen provides strong evidence that the effects of teacher expectations vary by family income. Using longitudinal data from 10 cities, Sorhagen found that the effects of teacher expectations, whether they’re positive or negative, are stronger for students from low-income families.

This study investigated one aspect of the complex cognitive and behavioral processes underlying student–teacher relationships and found that early inaccurate teacher expectations were a lasting contributor to later academic performance. Furthermore, the findings suggest that self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom vary across academic subjects and family income. Under- and overes- timation of early math and language abilities, but not reading abilities, seemed to have a more meaningful effect on students from lower income families. The fact that self-fulfilling prophecies in first-grade classrooms exerted an especially lasting impact on the achievement of disadvantaged students raises the possibility that teachers’ underestimation of poor children’s academic abilities may be one factor that contributes to the persistent and worrisome gap in achievement between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. On the other hand, teachers’ overes- timation of abilities seemed to disproportionally help low-income students, suggesting that knowledge of self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom could be relevant to policies aimed at ameliorating the achievement gap between low- and high-income students, especially considering the persistence of the achievement gap in America.

One neat thing about the study is that it hints at a mechanism for the power of school culture in low-income communities. A positive “no-excuses” environment is one way to encourage teachers to have high expectations for all students, and the study suggests these expectations will have a larger impact on low-income students. Something similar should also occur with regard to peer effects. If a student ends up in a classroom with higher achievers, the teacher is more likely to expect that they too are a higher achiever, and the impact of those higher expectations will be stronger for low-income students.

The importance of teacher expectations is also a reminder of why it’s important to evaluate teachers using multiple measures. While there’s often a big fuss made about the things teachers do that aren’t captured by test scores, the impact of teacher expectations is something that can only be captured by test scores. Even if you observed a teacher every single day of the year you wouldn’t pick up on whether they’re being sufficiently optimistic and equitable in their expectations for students. Such behaviors are too subtle to capture — what you need is a broad all-encompassing assessment that will incorporate the impact of teacher expectations even if it can’t specifically identify it.
Sorhagen, N. (2013). Early teacher expectations disproportionately affect poor children’s high school performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105 (2), 465-477 DOI: 10.1037/a0031754

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