Teacher Expectations Play a Big Role in the Classroom. Here’s How
Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High. He has published numerous articles on teaching and learning as well as books such as The Teacher Clarity Playbook, PLC+, Visible Learning for Literacy, Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading, How Tutoring Works, and most recently, How Learning Works:
The evidence of the impact of teacher expectations on student learning is both broad and deep. Hattie analyzed 613 studies on teacher expectations as part of the Visible Learning database and found that student achievement tracks closely with teacher expectations. In some cases, race, ethnicity, language proficiency, disability, gender, even appearance can subconsciously influence the expectations of a child. In other words, the evidence is you get what you expect.
Expectations telegraph to students what the teacher believes they can and cannot accomplish. Many of these come in the form of actions, not words. Assignments are a stellar example of this. Educators rarely assign tasks to students that they do not believe most can successfully complete as a result of teaching. Education Trust explored this phenomenon in a series of Equity in Motion reports. They analyzed thousands of assignments in English/language arts and mathematics in the spring of the school year. The researchers found that a startling percentage of tasks were below grade level, focused on basic recall rather than analysis, and held a low cognitive demand. TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) further documented the long-term trajectory of low expectations over multiple school years, noting that some students fall further behind with each passing year and never catch up.
In no way do we believe that caring educators intentionally lower expectations. So how might we interrupt the damage that low expectations causes? We turn to the work of Australian educator Christine Rubie-Davies, who has researched how high-expectations teaching is manifested in daily practice.
Communicate high expectations through your planning. Develop tasks that require students to engage in analysis and reasoning, not just simple recall of facts. Revisit tasks assigned in units to see if they align to the content standards and identify the high-level goals they should be working toward. Ways to increase the cognitive demand of tasks include asking open, rather than closed questions, withholding some information in tasks such that students must work together to locate additional resources, and requiring them to link new knowledge to existing skills and prior concepts.
Group students carefully. Use mixed-ability groups that encourage students to work together to accomplish tasks. Use differentiation as it was meant to be used: The learning is held constant, while the pathways to get there may differ. Ability grouping widens, rather than narrows, learning differences, because it makes it easier to change the learning expectations among groups. And don’t forget to change mixed-ability groups every few weeks so that students profit from learning alongside each of their classmates.
Set goals with students and assist them in monitoring their progress. Too often, students have vague and distant goals (passing Algebra 1; making their family proud) with little sense of the actions and incremental steps needed to get there. Meet with students regularly to set goals that are measurable, attainable, and progress toward long-term outcomes. Then ensure that students can regularly gauge their progress. For instance, make sure each lesson includes learning intentions, relevance, and success criteria and then pose them again near the end of the lesson. One frame is, “Today we’re learning [learning intention] so that [statement of relevance.] You’ll know you’ve learned it when [success criteria.]” At the end of the lesson, pose these as questions for students to answer with partners, as an exit slip, or on a Google form: “What did you learn today? Why is that important? How did you know you learned it? What do you need to be more confident in your learning?” Student responses to these questions are invaluable to the teacher, who can better calibrate their teaching, provide just-in-time supports to less confident learners, and make decisions about moving forward in the unit.
The good news is that students rise to the expectations we hold for them. Let’s ensure that our actions pair with the words of encouragement we provide.
At a critique group facilitated by their teacher, Austin’s 5- and 6-year-old peers gathered in a circle on their classroom’s carpet to look closely at his butterfly alongside the picture he based the drawing on. They offered him Kind, Specific, and Helpful feedback. They said, “Make the wing shape more pointy,” “more triangular,” and “less round.” They also suggested he include the swallowtails—the extensions to the wing at the bottom.
But Austin’s teacher had even higher expectations for these students; Austin and his classmates engaged in three additional rounds of feedback and revision. Each time, the butterfly improved even more, becoming closer and closer to a true scientific illustration before, at last, Austin’s butterfly emerged from its cocoon as an inspirational model of the impact that high teacher expectations can have on the quality of student work when coupled with rigorous peer critique and revision procedures:
Twenty years after Austin created this original butterfly in 2002, the message behind his story continues to resonate with teachers and educational leaders across the country; in order for students to achieve more than they think possible, educators must first ourselves believe in students’ ability to achieve more than we think possible.
In Austin’s case, this deep belief in student achievement was coupled with clear, concise guidelines for success, which ultimately led to deeper, more equitable outcomes for all students in the classroom. His teacher leveraged practices like a high-quality student-work protocol; the teacher began by choosing a highly complex, rigorous task for students—one that might be expected of a professional scientist even though Austin and his peers were just 1st graders—because they understood that in order for students to strengthen their intellectual muscles, the tasks we ask them to complete must stretch them cognitively.
From there, the teacher ensured that all students understood the expectations of the assignment and could internalize and implement the feedback they received from one another. At the end of the protocol, Austin and his classmates had created a body of evidence their school could use for years to come as a reflection tool on how student work has changed and improved over time in their building.
When educators set a high bar for student achievement, provide students with the right structures and support to meet that bar, and genuinely believe their students will meet it, all students can achieve equitable outcomes.
Challenges like Austin’s butterfly don’t need to be one-off activities, either. High expectations can and should be built in at the curricular level because we know that the expectations school leaders set in their buildings ultimately influence the expectations teachers set in their classrooms. Students deserve to be assigned complex texts—at or above grade level—and be regularly engaged in tasks that both stretch their abilities and grow their confidence.
In the fall of 2016, Hollis Innovation Academy in Atlanta, opened its doors for the very first time to welcome a set of students who almost exclusively came from another school that was closed due to underperformance; students who were “historically marginalized, consistently discounted, and often underestimated,” says school leader Diamond Ford, Ph.D. Ford and her colleagues were determined to provide these students with “a school that embraces their identity and empowers them to speak their truth,” as well as the “knowledge and the skill to dream bigger and lead choice-filled lives.”
A key element in Ford’s plan was providing teachers with a rigorous ELA curriculum to use in their classrooms, based on the evidence that improving curriculum can improve student outcomes.
Ford’s plan was met with concern. Detractors said that the EL Education language arts curriculum she selected would be “too hard for our students” and that they would become frustrated since they weren’t yet proficient readers. Instead, they urged Ford to consider low-level readers, which they believed would be the safest, surest way to ensure those students would make literacy gains.
Her students would go on to not only meet that bar but to exceed it. When provided with a standards-aligned rigorous curriculum and the support needed to access it, students at Hollis began “facilitating their own learning, establishing their own projects, and just taking their education into their own hands,” says Ford. They went on to grow 18.9 points on the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), compared with almost the same population of students a year prior while at their previous school. The CCRPI is a comprehensive school improvement, accountability, and communication platform for educational stakeholders in Georgia that promotes college and career readiness for all students. Hollis’ success would become an exemplar for student achievement across three dimensions: mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality Work.
Austin and the students of Hollis Innovation Academy are extraordinary but not necessarily unique in this regard; in schools across the country—from Woodruff, Wis., to Portland, Maine, to Detroit—we consistently see that when educators set clear expectations for students to create high-quality work while enabling and empowering them to meet those expectations, students will rise to the occasion every time.