The soft bigotry of high expectations: To combat the Black-white school achievement gap, remedy persistent segregation, don’t hope for miracle teachers
Social psychologist Robert Rosenthal died at the age of 90 this month. He was best known for his 1968 book, Pygmalion in the Classroom, co-authored by Lenore Jacobson, an elementary school principal in South San Francisco.
No book in the second half of the 20th century did more, unintentionally perhaps, to undermine support for public education, and thus diminish educational opportunities for so many children, especially Black and Hispanic children, to this day. The book and its aftermath put the onus solely on teacher performance when it came to student achievement, disregarding so many critically important socioeconomic factors—at the top of the list, residential segregation.
How did it do that?
The book described an experiment conducted in Ms. Jacobson’s school in 1965. The authors gave pupils an IQ test and then randomly divided the test takers into two groups. They falsely told teachers that results showed that students in one of the groups were poised to dramatically raise their performance in the following year, while the others would not likely demonstrate similar improvement.
At the end of that year, they tested students again and found that the first and second graders in the group that was predicted to improve did so on average, while those in the other group did not. The book, as well as academic articles that Dr. Rosenthal and Ms. Jacobson published, claimed that the experiment showed that teacher expectations had a powerful influence on student achievement, especially of young children. Pupils whose teachers were told were more likely to improve then apparently worked harder to meet their teachers’ faith in them.1
Some psychologists were skeptical, believing that the experimental design was not sufficiently rigorous to support such a revolutionary conclusion. Even the reported results were ambiguous. Teacher expectations had no similar impact on children in grades three through six. Similar experiments elsewhere did not confirm the results even for first and second graders.2
Nonetheless, the book was very influential.
In the decades after Pygmalion, other studies examined teacher expectations. They showed that teachers have greater expectations of higher achieving students but couldn’t determine whether the teacher attitudes helped to cause better pupil performance. Perhaps teachers only developed those expectations after seeing that students were higher achieving.3 Only an experimental study, like Pygmalion, could establish causality, but contemporary ethical standards would often prohibit such experiments, requiring, as they must, lying to teachers about their students’ data.
Minority children in the South San Francisco school where Rosenthal and Jacobson experimented were Mexican-origin, not African American. Yet ignoring how scanty the evidence was, education policymakers concluded from their research that the Black-white gap in test scores at all grade levels resulted from teachers of Black children not expecting their pupils to do well. And that, they reasoned, should be an easy problem to solve—holding teachers accountable for results would force them to abandon the racial stereotypes that were keeping children behind.
The accountability movement grew in intensity during the Bill Clinton administration, while in Texas, Governor George W. Bush implemented a mandatory standardized testing program whose publicized results, he thought, would force teachers to improve by shaming them for the lower scores of their poorer Black and Hispanic pupils.
In 2000, Bush was elected president; his campaign promised to demolish teachers’ “soft bigotry of low expectations.” During his first year in office, he led a bipartisan congressional majority to adopt the “No Child Left Behind Act” that required every state to conduct annual standardized testing in reading and math for pupils in the third through eighth grades.
Shortly after the bill was signed, I met with the congressional staffer who had been primarily responsible for writing the legislation. She predicted that within two years, the publication of test scores would so embarrass teachers that they would work harder, with the result that racial differences in academic achievement would evaporate entirely.
Nothing of that sort has happened. Although test performance of both Black and white students has improved somewhat, the gap is not much different than it was two decades ago. But the public reputation of our teaching force has continued to deteriorate, as a conclusion spread that failure to equalize test results could be remedied by gimmicks like naming a school’s classrooms for the Ivy League colleges that teachers expected their students to attend.4
Enthusiasm for charter schools escalated from a belief that operators could choose teachers with higher expectations, yet charter schools have not done any better (and in many cases worse) in closing the gap, once the sector’s ability to select students less likely to fail (and expel students who do) is taken into account.5
In 2008, I taught an education policy course for master’s degree candidates, many of whom had taught for two years in the Teach for America (TFA) program. It placed recent college graduates without teacher credentials in schools for lower-income Black and Hispanic students. Funded heavily by private philanthropies, TFA embraced the low-expectations theory of below-average performance. Prior to their teaching assignments, TFA corps members were required to attend a summer institute whose curriculum featured a unit entitled “The Power of My Own Expectations” and required them to embrace the “mindset” of “I am totally responsible for the academic achievement of my students.”
None of my master’s degree students claimed that in their two years of teaching, their high expectations actually produced unusually high achievement. But most were so immunized against evidence and experience that they enrolled in a graduate program with the intention of creating new charter schools infused with high expectations. Only a few wondered what had gone wrong with their theory, besides having goals that still weren’t high enough.
Certainly, there are teachers with low expectations and harmful racial stereotypes, and it would be beneficial if those who can’t be trained to improve were removed from the profession. But I’ve visited many schools serving disadvantaged students. Most teachers I observed, white and Black, were dedicated, hard-working, engaged with their students, and frustrated about the social and economic challenges with which children daily came to school. I don’t claim that my observations were representative; I was more likely to be invited to visit schools that took great pride in their efforts, despite conditions they struggled to overcome.
No matter how high their expectations, teachers can’t do much about:
- their pupils’ higher rates of lead poisoning that impact cognitive ability;
- more frequent asthma—the result of living with more pollution, near industrial facilities, in less-well maintained buildings with more vermin in the environment—that may bring them to school drowsy from being awake at night, wheezing;
- neighborhoods without supermarkets that sell fresh and healthy food;
- stress intensified by being stopped and frisked by police without cause, and a discriminatory criminal justice system that disproportionately imprisons their fathers and brothers for trivial offenses;
- frequent moves due to rising rents, or landlords’ failure to keep units in habitable condition;6
- absenteeism from a need to stay home to care for younger siblings while parents race from one low-wage job to another;
- poor health from living in neighborhoods with fewer primary care physicians or dentists;
- lower parental education levels that result in less academic support at home, combined with less adequate access to technology, a problem exacerbated since the pandemic;7
- and many other socioeconomic impediments to learning.8
Not every Black child suffers from these deprivations that affect their ability to take full advantage of the education that schools offer. But many do. Concentrating disadvantaged pupils in poorly resourced schools in poorly resourced and segregated neighborhoods overwhelms instructional and support staffs.
Such realities contributed to my conclusion that residential segregation, not low teacher expectations, was the most serious problem faced by U.S. education. It is what led to my recent books, The Color of Law, and its sequel (co-authored by my daughter, Leah Rothstein), Just Action; How to challenge segregation enacted under the Color of Law.
Robert Rosenthal’s Pygmalion theory set the stage for a national willingness to deny educational disparities’ true causes: the unconstitutional and unlawful public policies that imposed racial segregation upon our nation.
1. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. 1968. Pygmalion in the Classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston). For a technical summary by the authors, see. Rosenthal and Jacobson, “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” The Urban Review 3, September, 1968: 16-20.
2. See “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” The Urban Review 3, September, 1968, footnote on p. 19.
3. For example, see Thomas L. Good, Natasha Sterzinger, and Alyson Lavigne. 2018. “Expectation Effects: Pygmalion and the initial 20 years of research.” Educational Research and Evaluation 24 (3-5): 99-123.
4. See, for example, Richard Rothstein. 2010. “An overemphasis on teachers.” Commentary, Economic Policy Institute, October 18. https://www.epi.org/publication/an_overemphasis_on_teachers/
5. Martin Carnoy, et al. 2005. The Charter School Dust-Up. (Washington, D.C.: The Economic Policy Institute), https://www.epi.org/publication/book_charter_school/
6. For example, see “Housing is now unaffordable for a record half of all U.S. renters, study finds.” NPR, January 25. https://www.npr.org/2024/01/25/1225957874/housing-unaffordable-for-record-half-all-u-s-renters-study-finds
7. In early 2020, I wrote that the pandemic would widen the achievement gap. The consequences turned out to be worse than I could have imagined. Teacher expectations had nothing to do with it. Richard Rothstein. 2020. “The Coronavirus Will Explode Achievement Gaps in Education.” Shelterforce.org, April 13. https://shelterforce.org/2020/04/13/the-coronavirus-will-explode-achievement-gaps-in-education/
8. Richard Rothstein. 2004. Class and Schools. Using social, economic, and educational reform to close the black–white achievement gap. (Washington, D.C.: The Economic Policy Institute), https://www.epi.org/publication/books_class_and_schools/
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