Teachers’ Expectations and Students’ Results

We know that expectations matter. In fact, there has been research done to measure the effect expectations have on others, with one of the most famous being completed by Robert Rosenthal more than 50 years ago. Despite the time that has passed, the information learned from this experiment is still extremely relevant. [Watch The Pygmalion Effect and the Power of Positive Expectations]

In my advocacy practice, I regularly encounter teachers who inform the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that they have high expectations for their students yet write goals for the same students that demonstrate extremely low expectations. This seems to be compounded when the student has an identifiable disability for which society has low expectations.

Common examples include:

  • The parents of a student with speech and motor delays were provided a proposed functional communication goal where the baseline (i.e. where the student is currently functioning) and the expectation for the first objective (in this case, approximately 4 months later) were identical. This was not a fluke. The parents pointed this out to the IEP team and the speech and language therapist argued that it was an appropriate goal and that she has high expectations for the child.
  • A student with complex medical/health needs had multiple goals1 written in the area of physical therapy (PT). For a multitude of reasons, this student received zero interventions during the first 6 months of the goal duration. The student, within those six months (i.e. half of the time expected to reach the goal when provided with PT services 3 times per week for 30 minutes per session) and with no interventions, had met almost every PT goal on his own.
  • A college-bound student with autism recently changed educational settings and was having difficulty with the transition to the new setting. Rather than continuing his rigorous schedule and creating appropriate supports to nurture him through the transition, the school removed him from his Calculus class and placed him in Functional Mathematics.
  • The family of a child with developmental delays who was being educated in the general education setting requested that the child’s goals be aligned with the state curriculum for his grade level. The school refused.
  • The parents of a child with autism who had been fully included for many years and was functioning on grade level in every area except language arts was told that the student would become “frustrated” if she remained in the general education program when she transitioned to middle school and convinced the family that a special day class setting was better for her. Her progress during her middle school years reduced significantly and behaviors she had never before displayed emerged. While the school argued these were due to frustration with the curriculum being “too difficult”, when the student was put back into a grade level mathematics class, she had zero behaviors in that classroom and was described as a “model student”.

These are only a few of the very recent examples I have witnessed during IEP meetings.

Fortunately, recent case law in special education has set the standards for expected progress to a higher level. The Supreme Court in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 provided a more precise standard for evaluating whether a school district has complied substantively with the IDEA holding that “…a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Adding that “[a] child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom” (See https://www.copaa.org/page/Endrew for more information.)

The Ninth Circuit further explained Endrew F’s standard, by holding that “[i]n other words, the school must implement an IEP that is reasonably calculated to remediate and, if appropriate, accommodate the child’s disabilities so that the child can make progress in the general education curriculum, taking into account the progress of his non-disabled peers, and the child’s potential.” (See https://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/2017/9th.mc.v.antelope.valley.pdf for more information)

Yet despite these standards, students and families continue to experience the same low expectations listed in the above examples.

A National Public Radio (NPR) article from 2012 describes the Pygmalian effect and provides suggestions for how teachers can change their internal beliefs and expectations [Read Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform]. It also notes that providing them with information alone is not sufficient. This may be why the common response to our requests for appropriately challenging goals are met with not only refusal, but a denial of low expectations. In the situations noted above we received responses such as “I want him to reach his goal” or “I want to check off the box” (i.e. that the child met the goal), “we can put him back in the advanced math class later”, or “she will become frustrated” as rationale for maintaining the lower expectations. But what is the true desired outcomes for these children? How are these lowered expectations perceived by the students? And how do we ensure these expectations don’t lead the IEP team to make decisions that are not supportive of the student’s growth, or worse yet, hinder their growth?

I firmly believe that teachers go into their profession because they want to make a difference. I believe general education and special education teachers intend to help children learn. So why are so many families struggling with schools having low expectations for their children? The laws support inclusion in the least restrictive environment, research-based interventions, and ambitious educational programs with challenging learning objectives for all students.

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that most teachers and other front-line staff are not trained in the special education laws.

Typically, some of the administrative level professionals have some training in this area, but often school professionals are taught and reinforce the district policies, rather than the laws themselves. While district policies are often written to be aligned with the federal and state laws, it has been my experience that when the information trickles down from the top administrators to the front-line staff providing the direct services and sitting at the IEP meetings, the way these policies are implemented are not as aligned with the laws as originally intended.

Another part of the challenge may be the fear of families filing due process against the district if the student is not meeting their goals. Many of the schools I work with are more focused on avoiding timeline errors or other administrative issues than on providing the appropriate interventions needed for the students to succeed. It is unclear how this fear-based climate is helpful for schools since not addressing the students’ needs effectively is arguably the most egregious issue and this would include the need to challenge the student appropriately.

A third aspect is clearly that the teachers do not believe they are underestimating the students. And, unfortunately, those who have studied these issues, such as Robert Pianta, have shown that simply providing information is insufficient. Dr. Pianta shares his suggestions for changing teachers’ behaviors in the NPR article linked above (see the section titled 7 Ways Teachers Can Change Their Expectations).

It seems essential then, that districts ensure their teachers have this training. Based on the research that has been done over the years it is clear that expectations significantly impact student outcomes. By choosing to provide teachers with training on how to change their expectations from a behavioral approach rather than an informative one, districts will likely be able to increase graduation rates, reduce drop-out rates, and ensure children receiving special education services have the opportunity to not only be educated alongside their peers, but to achieve alongside them as well.

1 IEP goals are typically written for one-year increments. All of the examples provided were written in one-year increments.