You Get What You Expect: Teacher Expectations

In an ethnographic study of a kindergarten class in an inner-city school, Ray Rist showed that within eight days the teacher had grouped the children-not by academic indicators, but according to skin color, behavior, clothing, hygiene, and previous experience with siblings. Subsequent academic placement tests bore out the teacher’s expectations, and by the end of first grade the teacher’s initial expectations were virtually set in stone. (“Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations,” 1975, Harvard Education Review Reprint Series, 50)

Dividing a litter of virtually identical laboratory rats by placing them randomly in two different boxes, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson instructed graduate student observers to teach maze-running to those in the box marked “fast-learners” and to those in the box marked “slow-learners.” The observations bore out just what the “teachers” expected: though identical in every way, the “fast-learning” rats were seen as smarter, more attractive, more lovable, and in every way a better class of rats. Moreover, they actually mastered the mazes more quickly. (Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupils’ Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968)

For 20 years David Weikart followed 260 children from a housing project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, half of whom had enrolled at ages three and four in a preschool enrichment program aimed at internalizing high life expectations for themselves. Immediate IQ test gains by the Head Start group evened out by fourth grade; but later, these students showed lower rates of juvenile delinquency and teen-age pregnancy and higher employment rates. (“Research and Related Issues: Interactive Instructional Model,” 1987. ERIC document 297873)

Elementary school teachers in an inner city school were given a randomly selected list of their students and told that these children were predicted to blossom academically in the coming year. Sure enough, in a year’s time the identified students had shown marked gains-children who were Latino and African-American even more than those who were white and of Asian descent.

(Pygmalion in the Classroom, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968)