For any teacher, administrator, or policymaker who wants to make strong choices that are likely to benefit their students’ outcomes, Seth Gershenson’s recently-published Fordham Institute report on “the power of expectations in district and charter schools” is an important contribution.
Back in 2020, my colleagues and I published the “Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review” and summarized the best available research on the things that highly-effective teachers know, do, and believe. One such “best bet” that we presented there was high expectations for students. And when we reviewed the evidence on school environment and leadership practices in 2022, high expectations was once again a theme.
But what does that actually mean?
In practice, having high expectations for students can be thought of as a form of “tough love,” and putting them into practice may sometimes require teachers to “suspend their disbelief.” In other words, they may need to behave as though something that they don’t believe is likely is, in fact, possible.
These principles should apply to everyone. For example, great teachers are careful not to convey lower expectations for any subgroups, especially those for which a common stereotype may be negative. This sounds straightforward, but it can be difficult in practice, in part because low expectations are often conveyed unconsciously, indirectly, and with the best intentions—for example, by praising students for objectively poor work (to encourage them), posing less challenging questions to students who seem less confident, or helping these students sooner when they are stuck—all of which can undermine learning.
As noted in the Fordham report’s foreword, “the more clearly teachers can see what their exemplary peers consider ‘high expectations,’ the more likely they are to raise their own game.” However, consideration must also be given to the characteristics of the learning environments that teachers create. When goals are ambitious and demands for all are high, students must feel safe enough to “have a go” (as we say in Britain) without feeling pressured or controlled.
This requires an environment of trust, as well as a complex balance—asking a lot, but recognizing that students may not get everything the first time. And whether students succeed or fail, it matters how they, themselves, account for it: Attributing either success or failure to things they can change (such as how hard they worked or the learning strategies they used) is more likely to support future success than attributing results to things that are out of their control (like luck, “ability,” or not having been taught it).
While even the best available research evidence doesn’t reveal to us how to change teachers’ expectations, there probably is enough evidence to say that both subliminal and explicit teacher expectations can influence student attainment and become, at least to some extent, self-fulfilling prophecies. And support for high expectations can also be found in interventions such as mastery learning and goal-setting theory, which hold that, other things being equal, the more challenging the goal, the higher the level of performance actually achieved.
Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever met an educator who was not motivated to do the very best they can for the students they teach. For some, realizing this ambition may mean rethinking the sights they set for their learners, and preparing to be surprised when an unlikely expectation does, in fact, become possible for their students. But simply telling teachers to have higher expectations is likely to be—at best—an insufficient part of a much larger approach that will be needed to realize the power of high expectations. Dr. Gershenson suggests that “concrete actions should be taken to ensure that as many teachers as possible do, in fact, have and espouse high expectations for their students.” But to do this, educators and administrators need better and more context-specific and evidence-based approaches to help them develop practices that work not just “on average” but for their students in their contexts. The report suggests that “schools and districts should also consider how they might boost the expectations of their existing teacher force—for example, by incorporating student surveys that include an “expectations” dimension, something that we’ve been exploring here in the UK over the last two years.
Teachers are motivated to do the very best they can for the students they teach, and as Dr. Gershenson’s report points out, learners “frequently articulate their preference for, and the importance of, teachers who believe in them.” The best available evidence backs them up on this: Every student—and every adult—needs people around them to suspend their disbelief from time to time, and to help reframe the unlikely as the possible.