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The Power of High Expectations in Equitable Education

I believe that all children can learn, regardless of who they are or where they live. UNESCO stated, “Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. Yet millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty.” UNESCO is not limiting this statement to countries other than our own. Today, according to the Southern Education Foundation, half or more of the public schoolchildren in 21 states are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, a benefit available only to families living in poverty or near-poverty.

How poverty affects school quality.

The inequity in incomes is reflected in the kind of education learners receive. Low-wealth neighborhoods cannot pay the price for equal, quality education because for most districts, property taxes support school funding. According to a 2016 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession, our survey of state budget documents over the last three months finds. Worse, some states are still cutting eight years after the recession took hold.”

What can be done? Research shows that there is something we can do that does not cost money. It simply requires a change in the way we regard students and what we expect of them.

The Pygmalion Effect.

A new study from the Center for American Progress (CAP) concludes that teachers’ expectations for their students are strongly correlated with students’ college graduation rates, or the Pygmalion Effect. What is the Pygmalion Effect theory? Higher expectations of a person lead to higher performance, and the opposite can also be true. A teacher’s faith—or lack faith—in a student’s abilities may influence that student’s future success.

Higher expectations of a person lead to higher performance, and the opposite can also be true. A teacher’s faith—or lack faith—in a student’s abilities may influence that student’s future success.

The CAP study found that teachers generally have lower expectations of students of color and students from high-poverty backgrounds. Secondary teachers viewed high-poverty students as 53 percent less likely to graduate from college than their classmates from wealthier backgrounds. Black and Hispanic students were also deemed 47 and 42 percent less likely to graduate than white students, respectively.

Turning these attitudes around can have a profound effect on teachers, learners, and the achievement of everyone in our schools.

Growth mindsets to empower all learners.

In her work around mindsets and educational success and equity, Carol S. Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of multiple books and studies, identified the two types of beliefs people have about students’ intelligence and those that students can have about their own. They may have a fixed mindset, in which they believe that intelligence is an unchanging trait and that some people are born smart and some are not. Conversely, they may have a growth mindset, which is a belief that intelligence can be cultivated through hard work and education. A growth mindset does not imply that everyone is the same or that anyone can become a genius, but it does infer that intellectual ability can grow with ongoing effort.

Research conducted in the last 10 years has shown that learner mindsets directly influence grades and test scores, and that supporting learners in a growth mindset also results in higher achievement in grades and on tests. A growth mindset is especially important for students struggling under pessimistic categorization about their abilities. Dweck noted in Mind-Sets and Equitable Education, “When Black and Latino students adopt a growth mind-set, their grades and achievement scores look more similar to those of their non-stereotyped peers. When female students adopt a growth mind-set, their grades and achievement test scores in mathematics becomes similar to those of their male classmates.”

Aiming higher makes a difference.

How do we change these mindsets? According to the CAP study noted previously, teacher expectations are “tremendously predictive” more so than student motivation or effort. Also, teachers were able to predict a learner’s college accomplishments with more precision than parents or the learners themselves. We must move forward with the understanding that every student has potential—that they can succeed—and treat students accordingly.

This means requiring high expectations and high standards from everyone who touches the learning community: teachers and administrators, students, parents, and other learning guardians.

While mindsets matter, we must do more.

Investing in the future of our young people only makes sense. We must provide everything needed to unlock the learning potential of every child, including greater diversity in schools, teachers who are prepared and supported with ongoing professional development, access to broadband and educational technology, adequate and sustained funding, and high schools that effectively prepare graduates for college. The result is that we unlock students’ human potential and enable all of today’s learners to meet the future with confidence, armed with the right skills and tools. It is the right thing to do.

I invite you to read my special report that explores what we can do, right now, to give all students access to the education they deserve: Educational Equity: Six Ways to Open Opportunity.