Vail Daily column: Setting our sights high
In a famous education study published in 1966, two researchers, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, duped the entire teaching staff of an elementary school.
The researchers were interested in determining if teacher expectations had an impact on student learning. To find out, they performed IQ tests on elementary age students to establish baseline performance levels.
Next, they informed the teachers that some of the students were “spurters” or “bloomers” who were poised for an exceptional year of growth based on the results of their initial tests.
What they didn’t tell the teachers was that the students designated as the “bloomers” were actually randomly selected and that designation had nothing to do with the student’s actual performance or aptitude for learning.
Measuring students again at the end of the year, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that early elementary students who were identified to teachers as having the most potential for growth made dramatic gains compared to other students. These gains were statistically significant and were present across different races and genders.
Curiously, the effect did not persist into the higher grades — leading the researchers to hypothesize that students at later ages were less susceptible to the expectation effect, that the teachers were less susceptible to it, or possibly both.
The researchers called their study “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” after the popular (at that time) George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” (which was turned into the now classic musical film “My Fair Lady”), in which a young woman from a working street-class background is transformed into a proper lady through the expectations, training and care of her tutor.
Today, the influence and impact of high expectations for students remains a foundational concept in education. Every high performing education system on earth works to make sure that student expectations are high (taking into account the age and development of the student) and that every student is given the opportunity to interact with challenging concepts and curricula.
This work begins by anchoring all instruction against internationally benchmarked standards, comparing expectations or outcomes from multiple systems in order to develop a challenging — but also developmentally appropriate — set of expectations for students.
From these high standards, the curriculum is developed, establishing the “scope and sequence” of material (what things are going to be learned and in what order). Then, classroom materials (books, readings, video, simulations, games, etc.) are identified that align with the high standards and student tasks (the things we ask students to do to practice their learning and demonstrate new skills) are established. Also, educators work to create or identify evaluative tests (called “formative measures”) that can tell a teacher if a student is getting the concepts and making progress or not.
The landmark federal education law “No Child Left Behind” was designed with the intent of raising expectations for all students, particularly those in poverty or who came from minority groups. President George W. Bush, when stumping for passage of the law, captured the spirit brilliantly (or at least his speech writer did), saying that we had to confront “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
While the policy mechanisms in No Child Left Behind (testing, “blame and shame” accountability and the privatization of education) might have fallen way short in addressing those low expectations, the spirit of the law was undoubtedly right.
All our children deserve the right to learn in settings and with educators who have high expectations for them and who will not settle for anything less than the best they can accomplish.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.