High teacher expectations boost long-term student outcomes

When teachers set high expectations for students, those students do better in the long run—they’re more likely to get a college degree, less likely to get pregnant as a teenager, and less likely to receive public assistance when they’re young.

That’s according to a new study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes school choice and academic rigor. The study also found that middle school teachers in charter or private schools are more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to expect their students to go on to college.

The findings are further evidence of the importance of teachers in students’ lives and have implications for district policies regarding grading standards, homework and even classroom transitions, some of which have been relaxed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“High expectations are a good thing,” said Seth Gershenson, a professor of public policy at American University and an author of the report. “Not only are they good, but charter schools have more good things.”

The study looks at schools in many sectors

The study analyzed nationally representative survey data from the 2002 Federal Education Longitudinal Study and the 2009 High School Longitudinal Study, which track cohorts of 10th graders over time. Each student in the ELS was assessed by at least two teachers who were asked, “How far do you think this student can go in school?”

The two surveys included more than 15,000 students, although only about 500 were enrolled in charter schools, making estimates for charters less precise than for traditional public schools, a limitation of the study.

The study also controlled for school and student characteristics, including students’ race and gender, whether they receive special education services, family income, mother’s education level, language spoken at home, and standardized math score at the end of 9th grade . This allowed the researchers to make more accurate comparisons between school sectors, which tend to serve very different populations: private schools tend to serve students from higher-income families, while charters serve fewer students with disabilities than, for example, , traditional public schools.

Without adjusting for these characteristics, the study found that teachers in traditional public high schools expected just under half of their students to complete a four-year college education. Private school teachers expected about 80 percent of their students to earn such degrees, and in charter schools there was a significant difference between the beliefs of math and English teachers, with 63 percent of math teachers believing their students would earn a college degree compared to 53 percent of English teachers. .

After adjusting for student and school characteristics, the study found that the preference for private schools over traditional public schools fell by about one-third, which Gershenson attributed to the closing of disparities in family income between school sectors. However, the gap between the expectations of charter school and traditional public school teachers widened after these adjustments.

Charter and private school teachers were also more likely than traditional public school teachers to be overly optimistic about their students’ likelihood of success.

“In general, teachers are optimistic because they expect more students to graduate than they actually do,” Gershenson said. “It’s normal—in fact, more than normal, it’s good. That optimism in the form of high expectations really improves results.”

The study found that charter and private school students are more likely than their district counterparts to believe that their teachers believe that all students can be successful.

The expectations of teachers matter a lot, regardless of the type of school

Research has shown that regardless of school sector, teacher expectations matter a lot.

For example, a math teacher who fully expects a student to graduate, rather than a teacher who thinks the student has no chance, appears to increase that student’s chances of graduating from college by about 17 percentage points.

High teacher expectations also reduce students’ likelihood of having children by age 20 by about 3 to 6 percentage points and reduce their likelihood of receiving public assistance by age 26 by about 5 percentage points.

“It makes students believe in themselves,” Gershenson said. Otherwise, they might think, “If the teacher doesn’t think I can do it, he knows more than I do, so what’s the point of trying?”

“A small part of it may be not wanting to let the teacher down,” he said. “But I think the biggest part is just changing the whole mindset of the students — getting them involved in school and knowing and believing that if they get a job, they can thrive.”

These results do not support a cause-and-effect relationship, as students were not randomly assigned to teachers with high expectations. And they are likely to increase because of the binary nature of the comparison – teachers who have absolutely no faith that their student will get a college degree, versus teachers who are absolutely certain that their student will.

Despite this, past research by Gershenson and others has found similar findings about the importance of teacher expectations. For example, Gershenson’s 2020 study found that students perform better on standardized tests at the end of the year if their teachers are difficult graders.

But past research has also found that white teachers tend to have lower expectations of students of color, an effect that can create a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Gershenson said this effect may have slightly influenced the results of the new study because charter schools have more black teachers than traditional public schools.

Charter schools have a reputation for a strict school culture

Some charter school chains have long had a reputation for a “no-excuses” culture, which some educators and experts say can lead to overly harsh discipline. However, Gershenson said what the research is measuring doesn’t necessarily relate to that type of school culture.

“You can believe in the potential of students … without a rigid uniform policy or a rigid attendance policy,” he said.

He argued that school district leaders should take steps to raise the expectations of their employees, such as checking for it in the hiring process or including it in professional development or evaluations.

“The importance of high expectations is universal and will be relevant in almost any school, in any part of the country or the world,” Gershenson said.

The research comes as students work to rebuild the academic base lost during the pandemic and districts are thinking about how to support them.

Fordham analysts believe this should force districts to reconsider changes made in the midst of the pandemic. Amber Northern, who is senior vice president for research, and David Griffith, who is associate director of research, wrote in the introduction that schools have lowered the demands on students by relaxing grading policies or reducing the amount of homework.

“If we are serious about getting our students back on track, we must be even more serious about getting our expectations of them back on track,” they wrote. “Muttering the phrase ‘high expectations for all students’ is simply not appropriate.”

Still, Gershenson said he’s optimistic that teachers will maintain their high expectations as schools continue to emerge from the pandemic.

“Many teachers know that high expectations matter, and I hope that COVID doesn’t cause teachers to lower their expectations in a counterproductive way,” he said.

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