Can the academic expectations that teachers develop for their students become self-fulfilling prophecies? Can predictions made about another individual actually cause outcomes that confirm the original prophecy, and if so, how and under what conditions? This question has generated considerable research as well as controversy in the social sciences. The volatile nature of the inquiry stems from the special obligation inherent in teaching. As with the healing professions, teachers are given the responsibility and held accountable to promote positive changes in their charges. If teacher prophecies about differential capability among students could explain the observed achievement gap between groups of students (a gap that disadvantages poor and ethnic minority children), this social-influence process carries large societal implications.
The expectancy concept and its potential for confirmation have a long history in literature and social science, beyond education. Categorization of people, settings, and events reduces the complexity of social stimulation. It enables people to quickly sort experiences, identify essential features, predict outcomes, and plan actions. Although categorization can provide clarity, it can also blind a person when faulty or stereotyped beliefs, either positive or negative, are applied. An example of positive expectancy effects is found in the ancient Greco-Roman myth about the sculptor Pygmalion whose love for the statue Galatea brought her to life. Reference to negative expectancy effects is found in a 1948 paper by the sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the term self-fulfilling prophecy. Using the bank failures of the economic depression as one example, Merton defined the component parts as“a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true” (p. 195).
In Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968), the psychologist Robert Rosenthal and the elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson conducted the first experimental test of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers were given false test information about a randomly selected group of children who were labeled intellectual bloomers and expected to show greater growth in their learning. At the end of the year, the children identified as bloomers outperformed other children on intelligence tests—an effect documented in the early grades. This study fueled controversy over methodological problems, numerous experimental replications, and interest in the investigation of naturally occurring expectations in classrooms.
Evidence supports a causal connection between teacher expectations and student achievement, although the debate continues regarding the magnitude of the effect. The expectancy effect is more powerful under certain conditions, with the factors that moderate the effect under study (Brophy 1998; Rosenthal 2003; Weinstein 2002). The causal model proves complex, highlighting differences in susceptibility of both teachers and students to such effects and the magnifying role of the developmental stage of the children as well as of contextual features. There exists potential for teacher perceptual confirmation regardless of student behavioral confirmation and for student disconfirmation of negative or even positive teacher expectations.
Other vital questions include the mechanisms by which expectations can exert effects on student achievement, the factors that shape the formation of academic expectations and for whom, and the methods by which negative self-fulfilling prophecies might be reduced. Many social science fields have explored teacher expectations and expectancy effects, using varied methods at multiple levels of analysis.
Studies have documented that teachers treat high-and low-expectancy students differently, favoring highs with greater opportunity to learn and more positive interactions (Brophy 1998). Even young children are aware of differential treatment by teachers, which communicates information about the relative smartness of students in the classroom (Weinstein 2002). Thus, the mechanisms that bring about expectancy effects include the opportunity structure provided students, which directly impacts achievement, and ability messages, which through their shaping of student self-view and motivation to learn, ultimately impact achievement. Studies have also shown that differential expectations and differential treatment are expressed not only toward individual students but also toward groups of students—members of ability-based instructional groups within classrooms, academic tracks within schools, or high-poverty schools. Further, expectancy communication is evident not only in interpersonal interactions but also in the culture of classrooms and schools, where ability differences may be made publicly salient and instructional differentiation, such as a less rigorous curriculum for some students, may be a pervasive reality.
There also exists evidence of teacher bias in the formation of expectations—less clear with regard to gender, but more apparent in the stereotype-based underestimation of the ability of low-income, ethnic and linguistic minority, and special needs children. There is debate about the accuracy of teacher expectations, when judged against achievement scores, and the appropriateness of differentiated treatment. While it can be argued that expectations may play a larger self-maintaining role than self-fulfilling role, this debate also raises the question about the purpose for education—that is, whether a society is obligated to reach higher for all students.
Far less research has focused on how to reduce the occurrence of negative self-fulfilling prophecies in schooling. Intervention approaches have included increasing teacher awareness of biased expectations and promoting equitable interactions with students, schoolwide reform efforts to alter multilayered components of a negative expectancy climate, and policy mandates to raise academic standards (expectations) and reduce the achievement gap. Multidisciplinary research on this social-influence process has demonstrated the limits of behavioral and social-cognitive explanatory models and the importance of systemic and ecological approaches. When schools are structured to sort students for differential opportunities rather than for the development of talent in all students, expectancy processes no longer lie simply in the minds of teachers but rather are fueled by educational policy.
SEE ALSO Education, USA; Gifted and Talented; Merton, Robert K.; Pygmalion Effects; Schooling; Schooling in the USA; Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Brophy, Jere, ed. 1998. Expectations in the Classroom. Vol. 7 of Advances in Research on Teaching. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Merton, Robert K. 1948. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Antioch Review 8 (2): 193–210.
Rosenthal, Robert. 2003. Covert Communication in Laboratories, Classrooms, and the Truly Real World. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12 (5): 151–154.
Rosenthal, Robert, and Lenore Jacobson. 1968. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Weinstein, Rhona S. 2002. Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rhona S. Weinstein