September 26, 2023
Fig 1.—A school-based model for teacher expectations (Proctor, 1984).
On expectations and equity
Hello, I hope you are well and that you are feeling good about your life, your work, your family. I’m very sorry that it’s been so long since I wrote a Coaching Letter—late August and September are always very busy times, but this year more than most, I think. The fact that Rydell and I had a book manuscript due on August 31 may have had something to do with it, but also September has been really packed with workshops. The most recent workshop was the Evaluation Convening that we hosted in Derby on Friday—very fun, very exciting, very challenging. This Coaching Letter is not about evaluation (except obliquely), but I do want to let you know that we will be hosting another Evaluation Convening on October 23. REGISTER HERE. This is particularly important because, thanks to the feedback we received about the first one, we realized that attending that first session is foundational to benefiting from the follow-up sessions; therefore, we will be restricting access to the materials, resources, and further sessions to those who have attended the Convening—which is why we’d like to offer another opportunity. If we run out of space on October 23, we’ll run another one.
I have a list in my notebook of Coaching Letters I’d like to write—the list never seems to get any shorter. The last Coaching Letter, on popular misconceptions that we need to eliminate, was very popular—I got lots of emails, and I can tell from the stats on Substack which posts have been forwarded the most—so this is by way of a follow-up: I’m going to write about teacher expectations and how those are manifested in instruction, but a lot of the psychology behind that is relevant to other work arenas, and indeed the way we live our lives. And I’m going to try to tie in some other points as well.
Book Four, as the outline currently stands, has a chapter on expectations, so we’ve been reading the research, and it’s really depressing. Pygmalion in the Classroom is the classic—the one that would never make it past a university IRB these days (complete references at the end, and the links take you to the full articles). This is the article that introduced the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy into education—the idea that whether you have high expectations or low expectations, your beliefs themselves translate into students’ fulfilling those expectations. This is a nice summary of the Pygmalion Effect and related ideas (thank you, Tom, for this and many of the other articles).
The one I’m reading right now, Rist (1970) is so sad that I find myself putting it down to do other things, like make tea and check Twitter. In this article, Rist documents the ways in which a) the teacher makes judgments about which students are worth attending to; b) how related this is to the mores of her own social status; c) how this plays out in the way she organizes her classroom, how she treats students, and her instruction; and d) the impact that this has on the students. To wit:
The realization of the self-fulfilling prophecy within the classroom was in its final stages by late May of the kindergarten year. Lack of communication with the teacher, lack of involvement in the class activities and infrequent instruction all characterized the situation of the children at Tables 2 and 3. During one observational period of an hour in May, not a single act of communication was directed towards any child at either Table 2 or 3 by the teacher except for twice commanding “sit down.” The teacher devoted her attention to teaching those children at Table 1. Attempts by the children at Table 2 and 3 to elicit the attention of the teacher were much fewer than earlier in the school year. (p. 425)
Some of the things she says are truly awful, and it is unimaginable that a teacher today would do and say these things. And yet…
We have oodles of research that the effects of teacher expectations are alive and well in classrooms. Here are some of the studies we have looked at and why you should read them.
Rubie-Davies, et al, 2015. The research reported in this article is actually about changing teacher expectations, but the lit review at the beginning is really comprehensive and useful. This is where you will find, for example, that students are perfectly capable of discerning teacher expectations, and younger children are especially good; that teacher expectations are evinced in all kinds of instructional and related practices (see below); that some teachers are discriminating in their expectations—they expect more from some groups than others, typically based on characteristics such as race—and some are equal-opportunity low expectations, which appears to have more to do with the teachers’ perceived self-efficacy; and that high-expectation teachers and low-expectation teachers have very different beliefs about instruction. [Rubie-Davies is a major researcher in teacher expectations; you can find more of her work with this Google search.]
Timmons, et al, 2022. This is a review of research on teacher expectations and their impact in the early grades. The conclusions are that a) teacher expectations are frequently inaccurate evaluations of student abilities, often strongly influenced by race and poverty, and yet b) teachers rely on these evaluations to determine how to teach students, leading to c) all kinds of differential treatment across subject areas and other domains such as student behavior and self-regulation, and d), most damning, “Differential treatment is known to directly impact student academic outcomes.” (p. 21) [Timmons also writes a lot on expectations, as you can find in this Google Scholar Search.]
Kashikar, et al, 2023. The lit review of this study summarizes the research showing that attaching a label of learning disability to a profile of a student changes the expectations that teachers have for the student, compared with an identical student achievement profile minus the label. This raises all kinds of questions about the utility of notifying teachers when a student is eligible for special education services—what if the effect of notification is to make instruction for that student worse? How are you going to guard against that? Do you collect data on what happens to students in your schools who are identified as being eligible for special education services—not as individuals, but as a group?
When the pandemic hit and my colleagues and I were so consumed with creating advice for districts on how to respond to lost instructional time, we created the Accelerated Learning Framework. (You can read the background on that in this article in The Learning Professional). The original Accelerated Learning Framework has morphed, and I’m now using this Student-Centered Equitable Instruction Framework, although I really want to emphasize that it’s based on, and represents the same big ideas as, the original ALF. Anyway, we put a ton of work into researching and building out the components, and we ran a ton of workshops on the central ideas, both on Zoom and in person. I remember distinctly listening to Richard do one of his sessions on task, and his making the comment that the tasks that teachers give students are a manifestation of the expectations they have for them, and that hit me in a way that it hadn’t before. And then in HQI Live! this summer, in some of the same discussions that got us to the practices we need to drop that I wrote about in CL #184, we developed a list of practices that allow teacher expectations to have a detrimental effect on students. And then we did the search of research to substantiate that list. Here are some of what’s on the list:
1. Questioning. Teachers tend to: ask more difficult questions of students they perceive as more capable; ask students whom they think are going to give the right answer; avoid interacting with students whom they perceive as less capable. And as noted above, these perceptions of ability often have more to do with student affiliation with certain groups, not actual measures of capacity.
2. Wait time. There are two kinds of wait time—Wait Time 1 and Wait Time 2—which you can read more about in this slide deck. Teachers tend to give more wait time to students whom they perceive as more capable, because they think they will have more and better things to say. They give less wait time to students whom they perceive as less capable, which is ironic because you’d think that lower-achieving students would need more time, not less.
3. Feedback. This one is all kinds of interesting. I’m not sure I can do it justice here, but here are a few big ideas. Teachers with high expectations tend to provide more positive and constructive feedback. They believe in their students’ potential and are more likely to highlight their strengths and areas for improvement in a supportive manner. Feedback from teachers with high expectations often focuses on growth and progress. They emphasize effort, persistence, and the importance of continuous improvement. These teachers are more likely to use encouraging language that reinforces a growth mindset. They might say things like, “You’re doing well, but I know you can do even better with a little more effort.” Conversely, teachers with low expectations may provide minimal feedback because they believe students won’t make significant progress regardless of the feedback provided. This lack of feedback can hinder a student’s ability to improve. And when feedback is given by teachers with low expectations, it may be more negative and critical in nature. They may focus on what the student is doing wrong rather than what they are doing right. But all this also intersects with the beliefs of the students about their teacher’s belief in them, and for that you should read Yeager et al, 2013.
4. Task. Teachers tend to give more challenging tasks to students they believe are more capable of successfully completing the task. This is one of the reasons why differentiation is often a BAD THING (again, see Coaching Letter #184, #3 on the list of ideas to debunk.) And then there are other things teachers can do during instruction to lessen the challenge of the task—over-scaffolding, explaining too much, stepping in too early before students have had a chance to grapple with the material (because they assume the students need more help than they really do).
In other words, teachers who are on the wrong side of these practices are actively creating inequity in their classrooms. For teacher expectations to have an impact on the educational outcomes of students, two things must be in place: the presence of those expectations in the minds of teachers, and mechanisms whereby those expectations create the expected outcomes (the self-fulfilling part). In my experience, our approach in education is to focus more on changing expectations than on the actual practices that are so susceptible to bias that they create differential outcomes in students who are impacted by them. This has to change. We have to be willing to admit that there are some beliefs that are hard or perhaps impossible to correct for in the moment, so we should be leaning towards practices that are not so vulnerable to our biases. More on that another time, but in the meantime you really should read Kristal & Santos, 2021.
I’m aware that teachers reading this list are likely to be wondering about their own classroom practices. And I just want to point out a couple of things: 1. I have no doubt that you are a good person who cares about your students and wants to be the best you can be. 2. I also have no doubt that you have biases, not because you are a bad person, but because you are human and we are all socialized in a highly stratified, status conscious, and prejudiced society based on characteristics that have nothing to do with people’s intelligence, integrity, or worth (our society values light-skinned over dark-skinned, thin over fat, young over old, attractive over plain, able-bodied over visibly disabled, wealthy over poor… and we internalize that at a very early age). 3. I also know that you are likely unaware of your biases: a) that you have them at all and b) how they show up in your behaviors towards others. I say all this to normalize that our unconscious does things to us without our permission, and if you are not aware of biases it’s very hard to change them or the behaviors they generate.
I imagine the majority of people reading this newsletter have a principal license or equivalent, and I imagine that the majority of those were assigned to read The Coleman Report for one of their classes—or, more accurately, not actually read it, because the thing is like 800 pages. Nevertheless, here is the full text—thanks to a government that takes it obligations of freedom of information seriously—and here is two really great articles about the creation of the report as well as the report itself; one from Chalkbeat, and one from Johns Hopkins. I remember the class session at UT-Austin when we talked about The Coleman Report, and I came away with the understanding that the report concludes that the effect of schooling is not sufficient to overcome the effects of family and society. And it’s true that that’s a legitimate reading of one of the findings:
Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. For equality of educational opportunity through the schools must imply a strong effect of schools that is independent of the child’s immediate social environment, and that strong independent effect is not present in American schools. (p. 325)
But after reading all these research articles on expectations, I am left with a really heavy feeling. What if, instead of showing that schooling is not powerful enough to overcome the effects of racism and poverty, the correct alternative interpretation is that there is a mechanism at work through which those effects are actually supported, perpetuated, and even exacerbated, via a constellation of factors that we label teacher expectations? We have so much work to do. And one of our next steps is to try to model out how many of these factors are connected, and how they create outcomes, and how the feedback loops work. And for that, our starting point is a model created by longtime Connecticut educator Pat Proctor (1984)—it’s the graphic at the top of this Coaching Letter.
I very much hope to see you at our next Evaluation Convening, as well as some of our other workshops and presentations. And if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E., Hobson, C., McPartland, J., Mood, A., & Weinfeld, F. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Kashikar, L., Soemers, L., Lüke, T., & Grosche, M. (2023). Does the ‘Learning Disability’ label lower teachers’ performance expectations? Social Psychology of Education. 26:971-1000.
Kristal, A. S., & Santos, L. R. (2021). GI Joe phenomena: Understanding the limits of metacognitive awareness on debiasing (No. 21-084). Harvard Business School Working Paper.
Proctor, C. P. (1984). Teacher expectations: A model for school improvement. The Elementary School Journal, 84(4), 469-481.
Rist, R. (1970). Student social class and teacher expectations: The self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. Harvard Educational Review, 40(3), 411-451.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16–20.
Rubie-Davies, C. M., Peterson, E. R., Sibley, C. G., & Rosenthal, R. (2015). A teacher expectation intervention: Modelling the practices of high expectation teachers. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 40, 72-85.
Rubie-Davies, C. M., Hattie, J. A. C., Townsend, M. A. R., & Hamilton, R. J. (2007). Aiming high: Teachers and their students. In V. N. Galwye, (Ed.) Progress in Educational Psychology Research (pp. 65-91. Nova Publishers.
Timmons, K., Pyle, A., Danniels, E., Cowan, E., & McCann, A. (2022). Teacher expectations in the early primary grades: A scoping review. Review of Education, 10(3), e3375.
Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., … & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023