Research shows teachers’ expectations of students have powerful effect, vary by gender and race
CLEMSON — New research examining the role of teacher expectations in the classroom confirms that the effects of teacher expectations on student achievement in math not only exist, but grow stronger over time, vary by students’ gender and race, and are more influential for students who traditionally experience less success in math classrooms.
“We found that teacher expectations were not consistent across all student groups in the sample,” said Faiza Jamil, lead author of the study and assistant professor in Clemson University’s College of Education. “In the case of white girls, minority girls and minority boys, the effects of teacher expectations were magnified.”
The research might provide more insight into reasons for the underrepresentation of females and minorities in STEM fields, Jamil said. But far from being all bad news—because high expectations help achievement in the same way that low expectations hurt achievement—the study might help teachers in their individual classrooms and have important implications for institutions engaged in teacher preparation.
“This study suggests that perhaps erring on the side of overestimation, expecting ‘big things’ and then supporting students to achieve academically is the way to go,” Jamil said. “If educators can help all students see themselves as capable then students will be more willing to persist and not give up.”
Although this is not the first attempt to study the effects of teacher expectations, the current study has made significant contributions to the understanding of the phenomenon across childhood.
The research, published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, tracked over 20,000 students ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade over five different time points. Researchers used data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.
According to Jamil, the researchers were able to show that teacher expectations in one school year predicted student achievement one to three years in the future. By looking at teacher expectations and student math achievement at each time point, they also found that the influence of teacher expectations on future achievement grew significantly stronger as children progressed through school.
“With this study, we wanted to explore how students are influenced by teacher expectations differently through childhood,” Jamil said. “We believe the results have implications in the realm of teacher preparation as well as in the study of minority and female underrepresentation in math.”
The researchers’ novel statistical approach to this data gave them the best of both worlds: they accounted for the way individual teachers formed their expectations of students by comparing students within a classroom, but they were able to do so with a large population of students over an extended period of time. Their study was also unique because it was the first to examine such a large sample of students at multiple time points over a significant portion of their school experience to show how the influence of teacher expectations changes as children develop.
Jamil said she believes the vast majority of teachers aren’t aware of inaccuracies in their expectations, but she believes sowing a little doubt among all teachers regarding how they’re viewing their students can be beneficial. Confronting the issue head on in teacher preparation by encouraging deep reflection among future educators is a surefire way to encourage them to be more intentional with the expectations they communicate.
Jamil also suggests teachers take the time to talk to their students about how the students view themselves. In the case of students who only hear from family and society that they’re not good enough, an educator can be the voice saying they can be successful and belong in a math classroom.
“The solution for many students could be just taking extra steps to instill confidence,” Jamil said. “It’s something that can be addressed; educators need to be more strategic in how they talk to kids about their failures and successes.”