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.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Throughout her life and career, Jessie Woolley-Wilson has been driven by a singular belief that all children need and deserve high-quality learning opportunities, regardless of who they are or where they live. She believes that by supporting great teaching and learning, everyone wins: kids, families, communities and the world. Jessie has worked in the education technology space for nearly 20 years to support school and district leaders to improve learning and life outcomes for K-12 students.

Jessie joined DreamBox Learning® in 2010 as Chair, President, and CEO. The startup software company had pioneered Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ in 2006 and began partnering with schools soon after Jessie joined. Today, DreamBox serves nearly 3 million K-8 students and approximately 120,000 teachers. The company provided more than 350 million math lessons across the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

Jessie recently secured a $130 million investment in DreamBox from The Rise Fund, a global impact investing fund managed by TPG Growth. Prior to joining DreamBox, Jessie served as president of Blackboard’s K-12 Group and LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the K-12 division of LeapFrog Enterprises. Jessie also served in leadership positions at, the interactive division of The College Board, and at Kaplan, the leading test preparation company in the U.S.

Jessie supports the broader K12 industry by serving on the boards of several educational organizations including Rosetta Stone, Newsela, the Western Governors University Board of Trustees, and Ursuline Academy. She is also a board member for Boeing Employees Credit Union, Pacific Science Center, and The Bullitt Foundation. She has been a featured speaker at international events including TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, DENT and GeekWire Summit 2018.

Jessie is a two-time recipient of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award for her work in transformative innovation in education and honored her as one of 2018’s Top 100 Influencers in EdTech. Seattle Business Magazine awarded Jessie the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category and Forbes placed her on its “Impact 15” list for being a disruptor in education. The Puget Sound Business Journal honored Jessie as a “Woman of Influence” and 425 Magazine named her as one of eight “Unstoppable Eastside Women” for having a clear focus on the greater good. Additionally, The New York Times has profiled Jessie and her leadership style in their Corner Office column.

Jessie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia. She is also a 2007 Henry Crown Fellow and moderator for the Aspen Institute.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson