Among the most pernicious consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic was a general lowering of expectations for students. Many districts simply stopped tracking attendance during the shift to remote learning. Others softened their grading policies—or eliminated letter grades altogether. Some teachers moved away from assigning homework on grounds that students were already home and probably spending too much time on screens.
Perhaps it’s unfair to second-guess those pandemic-induced changes (though not nearly as unfair as the generation-hobbling decision to shutter so many schools for so long, despite ample evidence that it was possible to reopen safely). But if we’re serious about getting our students back on track, we must be even more serious about getting our expectations for them back on track. Muttering the phrase “high expectations for all students” just doesn’t cut it.
With the Covid crisis mostly behind us, at least for now, public conversation has turned to the millions of students who are still struggling academically and emotionally—and to how our schools ought to respond. Though bits of progress can be seen here and there, pandemic-related learning loss remains a disaster that has disproportionately affected poor and historically marginalized students. According to the latest NAEP results, U.S. students have lost the equivalent of twenty years of progress in math and reading. And those are just the academic costs: Nine out of ten schools report that the pandemic has also impeded students’ socioemotional development.
How education leaders respond to this moment will determine in large part whether students recover or continue this damaging slide. For example, some states have already chosen to rescind their “third-grade reading guarantees” and pass nonreaders along to fourth grade. And in some places, no-grading policies are still in effect. Even some postsecondary institutions are now proposing to help students “adapt to college” by foregoing grades in the freshmen year. “It’s not the kids’ fault that they’re behind,” goes the thinking, “so we need to adjust our expectations.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Numerous scholars have identified a culture of high expectations as an important correlate of impactful teaching and better outcomes. For example, one recent study found that high expectations boosted fourth through eighth graders’ test scores, and a recent Fordham-commissioned study detected lasting benefits for students whose teachers were tougher graders. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s famous study of “Pygmalion in the classroom,” which found that randomly selected students did better when their teachers were told they were talented, has now been cited more than ten thousand times (though efforts to replicate it have yielded mixed results).
Although many schools say they want their students to reach for the stars, high expectations are an especially prominent feature of successful charter schools, notably those of the “no-excuses” variety. Still, because these schools and networks are also known for things like longer school days, intensive tutoring, strict codes of conduct, and any number of other features, it’s not clear how much of their success is attributable to higher expectations per se.
Accordingly, our new study, The Power of Expectations in District and Charter Schools, seeks to understand better the role that high expectations should play in our academic recovery and gain a deeper understanding of whether and how they operate in the traditional public, charter, and private school sectors. To conduct it, we reached out once again to Professor Seth Gershenson of American University, who is well known for his work on teacher expectations. Using federal data from two nationally representative surveys, Dr. Gershenson explored the links between high school teachers’ expectations of their students (in particular, their expectations regarding college completion), students’ perceptions of their teachers’ expectations, and students’ long-term outcomes.
Here’s what he found:
- In general, teachers in charter and private high schools are more likely to believe that their students will complete four-year college degrees.
- In hindsight, teachers in charter and private schools were also more likely to overestimate students’ actual degree attainment.
- In general, students in charter and private schools are more likely to believe that their teachers think “all students can be successful.”
- Regardless of sector, teacher expectations have a positive impact on long-run outcomes, including boosting the odds of college completion and reducing the chances of teen childbearing and receipt of public assistance.
In our view, these findings have at least three implications for policy and practice.
1. All students need teachers who expect great things of them—and behave accordingly.
Like previous research, this study suggests that low expectations can be harmful, both because of what they imply about the level of instruction that students are likely to receive and because some students may internalize them. And of course, this concern is particularly acute when it comes to students of color, many of whom are still victims of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” with predictable results.
Ultimately, teachers bear primary responsibility for the standards they set. But a common curriculum that embeds high expectations can help, and because it can be hard to know what “high expectations” look like in a vacuum, some schools may need to provide relevant professional development, in addition to being clear with staff about expectations for things like grading standards and homework loads. The more clearly teachers can see what their exemplary peers consider “high expectations,” the more likely they are to raise their own game.
2. More families should have the option of enrolling their children in charter and private schools where high expectations are a core principle.
As this study underscores, most successful charter schools take high expectations seriously. And when choosing a school, most parents consider whether it will see their child’s potential. The benefits of such an environment are real, so giving more parents more high-quality choices should not be controversial.
Imagine, for a moment, that the teachers of a child you cared for didn’t believe in their gut that he or she was “college material” or were otherwise skeptical of his or her potential.
Wouldn’t you be looking for an alternative? Shouldn’t it be your right to demand one?
3. Above all, schools shouldn’t use students’ continuing challenges as justification for lowering expectations in the wake of the pandemic.
As policymakers and other stakeholders come to grips with the staggering educational and social costs of protracted school closures, the importance of setting and maintaining high expectations for students has never been clearer. Thankfully, all schools have now reopened their doors, which means that an educational recovery is at least theoretically possible. Yet every day, it seems, there are fresh reports of inane “no-homework” policies, student-initiated “mental-health days,” or other misguided attempts to address young people’s lingering anger and despair.
Yes, many students are behind or suffering because of circumstances beyond their control. But no, the solution isn’t to expect any less of them.
How could it be?