The Expectancy Effect in Action

article image
Photo by jovannig/Fotolia
Teachers who elevate their expectations have an influence on how their students perform.

An encounter with a fourth grade boy who was unable to read reminded psychologist Rhona Weinstein of the many ways expectations can be contagious. He was in the lowest level reading group in his class, called the Clowns, all class outcasts. So she had him moved to a higher level group. By the end of the year he was reading at his grade level, and his social life was merrier too.

“When ability cues are salient, children are aware of them,” says Weinstein, psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She is a co-founder of CAL Prep, a Bay Area charter school begun in 2005 in a partnership between UC Berkeley and Aspire Public Schools to constructively address such expectancy issues.

“It’s where Pygmalion meets the real world of schooling,” she says, referrinig to Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s book about their 1960’s experiment in a San Francisco elementary school. Teachers were given fictitious information about students to elevate their expectations, an experiment that demonstrated the importance of expectations in education. CAL Prep is an endeavor to make use of those findings.

 Weinstein and Frank Worrell, a UC Berkeley education and psychology professor, co-edited and contributed to a book about CAL Prep, Achieving College Dreams (Oxford University Press, April 2016), describing the school’s efforts to support the educational prospects of students long exposed to low expectations.

Weinstein cites her findings and others showing that children notice teachers’ expectations of them early in their schooling. Teachers signal their judgments with skill level grouping and verbal and nonverbal cues, as Rosenthal and Jacobson found. Those early judgments may predict students’ achievement level later in school more than ability testing.

Weinstein and her colleagues opened CAL Prep to give students most prone to negative expectation cues — minority students — an opportunity to transcend old expectations, as the curtailing of affirmative action closed an avenue of support for them.

“In educational settings where student treatment differences are greatest, expectations are lowest for blacks and Latinos, despite measured achievements,” said Weinstein.

In Achieving College Dreams, Weinstein and her colleagues describe the evolution of CAL Prep from inception to first graduating classes. Their aim is to equalize students’ opportunities to pursue higher education and achievement by replacing the hierarchical environment that typifies public schools. Tracking, stratification in classes by skill level, had to be eliminated, while “building a positive school culture of can-do messages,” said Weinstein.

“Are the effects of low expectations amenable to change? Can teachers be taught to use different practices?” are the motivating questions, she said.

 At CAL Prep, graduation requires completion of five college level classes, a significant feat, as only 1.4 percent arrive at the school in sixth grade proficient in math.

“Unchallenging curricula often both communicates and mediates low expectations,” says Weinstein.

 Longer school days and school years at CAL Prep help compensate, a part of reworking school design at “institutional, interpersonal and intrapersonal — internalized — levels,” she says. 

Students were recruited with an ad for participants whose families had not attended college, and about three quarters fit that description. The challenge of educating these students manifested in various ways. For some, being perceived as lazy was a way to avoid being judged as stupid, and visiting a library seemed embarrassingly “nerdy.” The learning curve of school staff included shifting from imposing a stream of detentions to more constructive ways of changing self-defeating habits.

“When students arrived late to class, the teacher might say, ‘I’m glad you’re here. Let me catch you up,’” said Weinstein, citing an example.

Students are less inclined to behave defiantly with a teacher perceived as more caring, she said. The emphasis is on the process of learning, including learning from failure about how to adjust strategies.

The stakes are economic as well as social, Weinstein and Worrell point out in their book. They cite a report by the California Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color (2012), showing that the recent 56.6 percent high school graduation rate for males of color would yield $8.1 billion per year, while a 100 percent graduation rate would produce $37.2 billion for the economy.

CAL Prep opened with a student population of 84 sixth and seventh graders, then grew into a ninth to twelfth grade school with a student population of 225.

“We were constrained by school sites, first in Oakland, then Berkeley, that were too small,” said Weinstein. “Within its first two graduating classes of 2011 and 2012, 59 percent and 77 percent, respectively, had been with us for four or more years. Student attrition was reduced as the school matured and a supportive college preparatory culture developed.  A school’s first year is always a challenging situation, and beyond school maturity, there were social factors.”

Some students wanted a less challenging program, a larger school, or more extracurricular activities, among other issues, Weinstein said.

However, 100 percent of CAL Prep graduates have been accepted into four-year colleges, which Aspire Public Schools requires for graduation, and 75-83 percent enrolled in four-year colleges, compared to 14 percent of Latino and African-Americans in California, said Weinstein. Other graduates of CAL Prep enroll in community colleges.

“Early evidence is that college retention is high. Constraints are financial, feelings of belonging, and family needs,” Weinstein says.

“The goal was to have the first graduating class graduate together,” she said, “but one student struggled with completing requirements and didn’t finish. He was selected as graduation speaker. He gave a rousing speech about how he fell off the track and got back on. He graduated the next year, after a super senior year. It’s a different kind of high school environment.”

Read more from Jessica Cohen about Studying Expectancy’s Effects.

Jessica Cohen is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. She most recently reported on health issues related to fracking for Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.