10/20/2014 08:27 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Why Do Reformers Misrepresent the Power of Teachers' Expectations?

Liberal school reformers, such as Russyln Ali, have long argued that if even one "high-flying" high-poverty school can overcome poverty, then teachers in schools that aren't selective, and who serve neighborhoods with intense concentrations of generational poverty, could do the same. Ali claimed, "The biggest challenge these educators (of high-flying schools) face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed."

Lest a charitable reader conclude that her words were not code for an attack on teachers and unions, let's not forget that Ali made that claim to justify NCLB's bubble-in accountability as an antidote to what President Bush called "the benign bigotry of low expectations."

We must also remember that Ali is now a fervent supporter of the Vergara lawsuit and the campaign to wipe out teachers' due process rights. Vergara and its spawn are unlikely to ultimately win in court, but they create a venue for high-profile political attacks on unions, choreographed by top-dollar public relations firms.

The latest shot in the war on teachers came from the neo-liberal Center for American Progress. The CAP has long issued "papers" that borrow the trappings of social science research, but that are really a venue for advancing their political spin -- if teachers didn't have low expectations for poor children of color, we wouldn't need such complex and expensive school improvement programs. (And New Democrats should prove they are tough by beating up on teachers unions.)

The CAP's "The Power of the Pygmalion Effect" ostensibly supports Common Core while, once again, implicitly blaming teachers for the achievement gap. The CAP's Ulrich Boser, Megan Wilhelm, and Robert Hanna proclaim that 10th grade students who they studied who "had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations."

A claim like that should require a complex research model which takes into account family, peer effects, and systemic factors that contribute to college readiness. Boser et. al, however, attribute those differential outcomes to teachers' answer to a 2002 NAEP question about their students' chances to succeed in higher education. Their definition of "expectations" was based on how teachers answered the question "'how far in school ... [do] you expect this student to get,' including high school, college, and beyond."

It is hard for me to believe that the point of the CAP papers is not to prompt ledes such as this one in The Huffington Post by Rebecca Klein: "Students from low-income families and students of color may perform poorly in school because their teachers simply do not believe in them."

Klein later adds "The CAP report carefully avoids assuming that teacher expectations cause student achievement." I disagree with her statement and here is why.

In one of their few footnotes, Boser et. al write, "A growing body of research shows that some teachers have low expectations for low-income students and students of color."

Such a claim misrepresents the thrust of "Teachers' Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy," by Lee Jussin and Kent Harber. In fact, Jussin's and Harber's excellent study is a balanced and scholarly refutation of the implication by Boser et. al that it is teachers' low expectations, not structural problems, that keep the achievement gap from being closed. (Jussin and Harber also refute extreme positions on the other side of the bitter battle over the power of expectations.)

Jussin and Harber note that this message on the power of the Pygmalion Effect has been "clear and simple and it seemed to provide scientific credibility and strong rhetorical ammunition for pundits, policymakers, social activists, and reformers." But, they conclude "It is not clear, however, that the evidence justifies condemnations of teachers for their supposed role in creating injustices."

I could go on and recall a long list of public relations campaigns, from the time of "Waiting for Superman" to the concerted effort to sell the panacea of selective "Success for All" charter schools, to promote corporate school reform as a quick and easy fix for complex problems. They consistently repeat the macho mantra of Expectations!, Expectations!, Expectations!; "No Excuses!, No Excuses!, No Excuses!;" and Accountability!, Accountability!, and Accountability! As the accountability-driven reform movement continues to fail in classrooms that serve all children, today's corporate reformers are doubling down on the politics of personal demonization.

Being an inner-city teacher, I don't deny that I have a bias, and that I am, frankly, angered by the long string of charges by so many reformers that teachers are to blame for poor educational outcomes and inequities. So, I will cite Jussin's and Harber's abstract and let readers decide:

This article shows that 35 years of empirical research on teacher expectations justifies the following conclusions: (a) Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom do occur, but these effects are typically small, they do not accumulate greatly across perceivers or over time, and they may be more likely to dissipate than accumulate; (b) powerful self-fulfilling prophecies may selectively occur among students from stigmatized social groups; (c) whether self-fulfilling prophecies affect intelligence, and whether they in general do more harm than good, remains unclear, and (d) teacher expectations may predict student outcomes more because these expectations are accurate than because they are self-fulfilling. Implications for future research, the role of self-fulfilling prophecies in social problems, and perspectives emphasizing the power of erroneous beliefs to create social reality are discussed.

Of course, teachers' expectations is an important issue that must be carefully studied and discussed. It is especially important that educators engage in a sober self-reflection on the expectations we hold for all students, especially poor children of color. That is why educators with all perspectives should join in condemning another simplistic paper by the Center for American Progress and the Vergara campaign. Teachers who have damaging and low expectations of students should be efficiently removed from the classroom. But, we must stop the blame game and tackle the real problems that create the education achievement gap.