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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

When teachers believe, students achieve

"All students can learn" was the school district's slogan, printed on the stationery back in the era when mission statements were new. They can learn, I said to myself. But will they?

High teacher expectations pay off for students, even when they're overly optimistic, concludes a new Fordham study, The Power of Expectations, by Seth Gershenson of American University.

Students whose high school teachers believe they're on the college track are more likely to earn a college degree and avoid teen pregnancy and welfare dependency. “That optimism in the form of high expectations does improve outcomes,” said Gershenson.

Charter and private-school teachers have higher expectations for their students, even after controlling for student characteristics, than teachers in district schools, the study found. Students in charter and private schools are more likely to be believe their teachers think "all students can be successful."

Black charter students are more likely to have a black teacher than black students in district schools, an earlier study found. Black teachers tend to have "higher expectations for black students — and white teachers’ lower expectations for black students," notes Education Week.

Expectations were lowered when schools closed, write Amber Northern and David Griffith in the foreword. In some places, they've stayed low. But, if less is expected -- in academics and behavior -- students will not catch up.

"A common curriculum that embeds high expectations" can help teachers, they write. Schools need to be "open with staff when it comes to things like grading standards and homework loads."

In addition, "more families should have the option of enrolling their children in charter and private schools where high expectations are a core principle," they write.

Above all, schools shouldn’t use students’ continuing challenges as justification for lowering expectations in the wake of the pandemic.
. . . every day, it seems, there are fresh reports of inane “no-homework” policies, student-initiated “mental-health days,” or other misguided attempts to address young people’s lingering anger and despair.
Yes, many students are behind or suffering because of circumstances beyond their control. But no, the solution isn’t to expect any less of them.

High expectations don't do kids much good if they're disconnected from reality. The College Fairy will not fly in the window, tap each D student on the forehead and turn them into physicists and poets.

I observed a San Jose charter high school in its early years for my book, Our School. Most of the students came from Mexican immigrant families and were used to doing the minimum amount of work to earn barely passing grades. The goal was to prepare them for college. The founders looked for every way to measure whether students were learning, treated bad news as useful information and immediately looked for ways to improve. No energy went into defensiveness or blaming students' parents or past trauma or society. It all went into teaching better so more students would meet very optimistic expectations.

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