The im­por­tance of our teach­ers

The idea that teach­ers have a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence over their stu­dents is not new, but prov­ing the link be­tween a teacher’s ex­pec­ta­tions and a stu­dent’s out­comes has been dif­fi­cult. Un­til now.

Finweek English Edition - - News - By Jo­han Fourie Jo­han Fourie

most of us had a favourite teacher. Per­haps they made an ex­tra ef­fort in ex­plain­ing dif­fi­cult con­cepts, gave you un­de­served praise and ac­knowl­edge­ment, or were kind and sup­port­ive dur­ing a dif­fi­cult time. Per­haps they could see some­thing spe­cial in the young you that you had not yet dis­cov­ered your­self: they ex­pected more of you than what was war­ranted by your per­for­mance.

New re­search now shows that we should be thank­ful to those teach­ers. Three US economists, in a Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search (NBER) work­ing paper, show that teacher ex­pec­ta­tions mat­ter in ex­plain­ing stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tional out­comes.

The idea that teach­ers have a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence over their stu­dents is, of course, not new. The overt or sub­tle mes­sages that teach­ers give to stu­dents about their po­ten­tial should, the­o­ret­i­cally, have large and long-last­ing ef­fects; a stu­dent that must fre­quently hear how ter­ri­ble she is at math is likely to per­form much poorer on a math test com­pared to a stu­dent of the same abil­ity who fre­quently re­ceives pos­i­tive en­cour­age­ment.

It was al­ways dif­fi­cult to prove this link be­tween teacher ex­pec­ta­tions and stu­dent out­comes causally. Per­haps the teacher could iden­tify math po­ten­tial quite early and was only sig­nalling to the two stu­dents their re­spec­tive ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages.

The three au­thors, how­ever, find a novel way to show that teacher ex­pec­ta­tions do mat­ter. They use a na­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of teacher ex­pec­ta­tions to show, first, that teach­ers are of­ten overly op­ti­mistic of their stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tion po­ten­tial. They then show that this op­ti­mism pays off.

Be­cause two teach­ers report the ex­pec­ta­tions for each stu­dent in their dataset, the au­thors can use the vari­a­tion in the teach­ers’ eval­u­a­tion as a way to causally mea­sure the ef­fect of teacher ex­pec­ta­tions. The stu­dents that re­ceive a higher rat­ing from teach­ers, con­trol­ling for other ob­serv­ables and the other teacher rat­ing, also seem to achieve higher ed­u­ca­tional out­comes: they are more likely to go on to college, for ex­am­ple. Teacher ex­pec­ta­tions, the au­thors ar­gue, be­come a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy. A too op­ti­mistic rat­ing, given the stu­dent’s in­nate abil­ity, may push a stu­dent be­yond the level he was ‘sup­posed’ to per­form at.

There is also a dark side to this. More re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tional prospects may ac­tu­ally be counterproductive. A stu­dent whose teacher pre­dicts that they are un­likely to fin­ish high school is less likely to fin­ish high school than a stu­dent with sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics, but with a more op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tion.

This may re­sult in dis­crim­i­na­tion, as male teach­ers may have less op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tions for fe­male stu­dents, and white teach­ers may have

A too op­ti­mistic rat­ing, given the stu­dent’s in­nate abil­ity, may push a stu­dent be­yond the level he was ‘sup­posed’ to per­form at.

less op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tions for black stu­dents. How to solve these (of­ten im­plicit) bi­ases is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion. One an­swer may be to fo­cus on ap­point­ments from a more di­verse teacher pool.

Ap­point­ing teach­ers from the same so­cio-eco­nomic or eth­nic back­ground may have other pos­i­tive con­se­quences too. A sec­ond NBER work­ing paper re­cently pub­lished by a team of five au­thors, shows that black stu­dents in the Ten­nessee school sys­tem who were ran­domly as­signed in Grade 3 to a black teacher are 7% more likely to grad­u­ate from high school, and 13% more likely to en­rol in college than class­mates who had a white teacher.

They as­cribe this to the ‘role model ef­fect’. Black teach­ers, they ar­gue, “pro­vide a cru­cial sig­nal that leads black stu­dents to up­date their be­liefs about the re­turns on ef­fort”. In other words, by the mere fact of be­ing in the class­room, black teach­ers show black stu­dents what is pos­si­ble.

In a se­ries of tweets, Trevon Lo­gan, pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at Ohio State Univer­sity, ques­tions this ‘role model’ in­ter­pre­ta­tion. The find­ings “im­plic­itly de­nies any agency to the teacher or the stu­dent”. It pre­sumes that stand­ing in front of a class with a de­gree is suf­fi­cient to alter a stu­dent’s be­hav­iour.

“Black teach­ers bring skills and ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proaches to their work. Re­mov­ing teacher be­hav­iour stops us from look­ing at what teach­ers do to and for stu­dents. It also de­nies the ex­ten­sive lit­er­a­ture in black ed­u­ca­tion stud­ies about unique strate­gies em­ployed by black teach­ers. And it sug­gests that white teach­ers need not im­prove with re­gards to black stu­dents.”

Lo­gan is cor­rect that there may be mul­ti­ple rea­sons why teach­ers that re­flect the same so­cio-eco­nomic or eth­nic back­ground are more likely to get bet­ter re­sults from their stu­dents. This may be due to the role model ef­fect, but it’s prob­a­bly more likely a com­bi­na­tion of more rel­e­vant teach­ing meth­ods and greater in­vest­ments in time and at­ten­tion. It may, as the first paper shows, also sim­ply be that these teach­ers have greater (per­haps even un­re­al­is­tic) ex­pec­ta­tions for these stu­dents.

These re­sults are likely to have im­pli­ca­tions be­yond the school class­room: for those of us who teach at uni­ver­si­ties, work as hu­man re­source pro­fes­sion­als, or lead large teams, the re­sults of these stud­ies sug­gest that our stu­dents or ju­nior col­leagues are likely to gain from our op­ti­mistic ex­pec­ta­tions about their prospects, rather than a more re­al­is­tic or even pes­simistic out­look.

And per­haps it is time to pick up the phone and thank that pri­mary school teacher who had, most likely un­know­ingly, overly-op­ti­mistic ex­pec­ta­tions about your fu­ture ca­reer prospects. ■ ed­i­to­[email protected]­

is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in eco­nom­ics at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

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