Great expectations

I see a recent study concluded that teachers’ expectations seem to be strongly correlated to how students perform in the future.  My immediate response was “who knew?”. Is it really that surprising that a teacher has a fair idea of how pupils are likely to do? Wouldn’t it be rather more newsworthy if those pupils we expected to do well, did badly and vice versa?

I note further that the study suggests that future academic performance has a better correlation with teacher expectations than with student or parent expectations, student motivation or student effort.  This didn’t seem that surprising either. After all, we see them in an academic setting, unlike their parents, and however fond we are of our students, we are rather less blinded by partiality than the typical parent. We also see the whole picture – of course factors such as motivation and effort are important, but they do not tend to completely override aptitude,  for example, and nor can they entirely compensate for adverse circumstances.

So is this study celebrating that teachers know their students? You must be joking!

Firstly, on what I admit is a casual reading (I didn’t go back to the original research paper), it seems to be falling into that classic trap of thinking that correlation implies cause. (I spend a fair bit of time emphasising to sixth-formers that this is a fallacy – the classic example is the correlation shown between ice cream sales and deaths by drowning.)    It is, then, apparently, we teachers who are causing those poor kids not to achieve by having lower expectations of them (I doubt we get the credit for the achievements of the ones of whom we have high expectations).   Should we conclude that if only we had sufficient faith in them,  they would all achieve excellent qualifications and go on to pleasant and affluent lives?

Inevitably, of course, the truth lies in between. On an anecdotal basis, I’ve seen (and I’m sure others have too) a number of examples where teacher expectations really have made a difference – this can be evident when a child changes teacher for a given subject, for example. And on a common sense basis, if the teacher lets the child see they do not reckon their chances much, it is likely to have some effect, naturally. Even if you do not make it that blatant, it can have subtle effects, as I discussed briefly in my last post when considering baseline data.

I’d be quite interested in how they framed the question.  I know I find myself engaging in a kind of doublethink sometimes – when I am with a particular pupil, helping them with something, I tend to really believe they’ve got a chance of getting whatever it is we are working towards (be it a specific grade, a place at a particular university or just a decent understanding of adding fractions).  In the cold light of day, if asked for this sort of study, then I might well give a less positive estimate – but I might not. If you phrased it as “can you fill in what A-level grades and degree classes you think your Year 10 will get”, I suspect I would give you the conservative estimate. If you asked me about each child individually, and said “What do you think XXX could get?” then I think I might be more positive because I’m thinking about each child as an individual.

I’m also interested in exactly what they mean by “expectations”.  One phrase from the online article caught my attention: “our study also found that teachers have far lower expectations for students who might need high expectations and support the most”. 
To me, that is saying they are not talking about what I mean by expectations – an honest assessment of what the child is likely to achieve – but aspirations. They are not the same. I can hope, and wish, and aim for a child who has many factors against them to achieve at a high standard, but if you ask me whether I would routinely expect them to do as well as a child who has everything going for them, then surely I would seem naive and ignorant to say yes?  I don’t want, for example, a miserable home life to affect how a child performs – and I’ll do my best to support them and help them, and encourage them to aim high. But that’s not the same as suggesting I should expect it not to have an effect.

Yes, poverty of aspiration is potentially a real problem. We must guard against it vigilantly. But trying to suggest that raising teacher expectations will make that significant a difference is a route to neglecting genuine social problems (if only societal inequalities could be addressed through our positivity!). It is also yet another stick with which to beat the teaching profession.


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