(By Suolang Luobu/AP) (By Suolang Luobu/AP)

How many times have you heard that schools need to create “a culture of high expectations” for all students? What exactly is that?  Esther Quintero, senior fellow at the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute, explains in this post, which first appeared on the institute’s blog.


By Esther Quintero

What exactly is “a culture of high expectations” and how is it created? In fact, what are expectations? I ask these questions because I hear this catchphrase a lot, but it doesn’t seem like the real barriers to developing such a culture are well understood. If we are serious about raising expectations for all learners, we need to think seriously about what expectations are, how they work and what it might take to create environments that equalize high expectations for what students can achieve.

In this post I explain why I think the idea of “raising expectations” — when used carelessly and as a slogan — is meaningless. Expectations are not test scores. They are related to standards but are not the same thing. Expectations are a complex and unobservable construct — succinctly, they are unconscious anticipations of performance. Changing expectations for competence is not easy, but it is possible — I get at some of that later.

Certain conditions, however, need to be in place — e.g., a broad conceptualization of ability, a cooperative environment etc. It is unclear that these conditions are present in many of our schools. In fact, many are worried that the opposite is happening. The research and theory I examine here suggest that extreme standardization and competition are incompatible with equalizing expectations in the classroom. They suggest, rather, that current reforms might be making it more difficult to develop and sustain high expectations for all students, and to create classrooms where all students experience similar opportunities to learn.

I get that we all care about the same fundamental issues here: Creating the conditions that support and lift all kids regardless of socioeconomic status, race or initial ability. But I think this goal is better served by understanding what expectations truly are — if we avoid this (somewhat tedious) task I am not sure how much real progress can be achieved. So, please bear with me.


In social psychology, expectations — particularly expectations for competence — are implicit, largely unconscious, anticipations of the relative quality someone’s future performance. In other words, expectations are “quick predictions” about how much value someone’s contributions will add to the goal or task at hand. Various theories of group processes and interpersonal relations (see here for a good overview) have established that if the value of someone’s contributions or ideas is predicted to be high, that person will in fact receive more opportunities to contribute (e.g., express an idea, make a suggestion), other group members will defer to this person more often (e.g., they will go along with his/suggestions, respect his/her idea etc.), and they will perceive his/her contributions to be superior in quality.

Expectations for competence shape social interaction in subtle but powerful ways. Also, once developed, expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. The higher the expectations for someone, the more likely it is that this person will receive opportunities to speak up, the more likely it is his/her suggestions will be positively viewed by others, and the more likely it is that this person will stick to his/her ideas in the face of disagreement or criticism by others. By contrast, the person for whom group members hold lower performance expectations will be given fewer opportunities to contribute, will speak less and in a more hesitant fashion, will more frequently have his/her contributions ignored or poorly evaluated, and will be more easily influenced when disagreements emerge.

In this manner, differential expectations create and maintain a hierarchy of participation, evaluation, and influence among group members — also known as the group’s “status hierarchy.”

The processes and dynamics I just described are pervasive in all kinds of social groups and organizations. Groups of students and classrooms are not radically different. So, of course having high expectations for all students is fundamental, particularly among teachers and administrators who have daily contact with those students, but also peer expectations as well as the expectations a student holds for him/herself are fundamental. In schools, participation is learning — when a student is withdrawn or fails to get the attention of others, that student is neither engaged nor learning. So, how can we make sure that schools are equitable places where all students enjoy similar learning opportunities?

To begin to answer this question, we need to know how expectations are formed and why it is that people (old and young) walk into new groups with certain shared knowledge of the world that serves as the basis for the group to mimic and perpetuate inequalities that exist in the broader society.

Where Do Expectations Originate?

As I said earlier, expectations are often unconscious; it’s not like we can concentrate and be able raise or lower our expectations for someone, even for ourselves. To affect (raise or lower if you will) expectations we need to get at their “root cause” — so, where do expectations come from? One key source is socially significant (or status) characteristics, which are attributes on which people differ (e.g., race, gender, native language, math expertise) and for which there are widely held beliefs in the culture associating greater social worthiness and competence with one category of the attribute (men, whites, English speakers, math experts) than another (women, African Americans, Spanish speakers, math novices).

I have discussed (here and here)  implicit biases and stereotypes — status beliefs are a component of stereotypes. While stereotypes about gender, race and ethnicity may differ in content, they all have something in common: A status element that associates greater value with one category of the distinction (men, whites) than another (women, people of color).

I should probably clarify that I don’t endorse any of this. Quite the contrary – my point is that the goal of reducing social inequalities in everyday contexts requires acknowledging the fact that status associations do exist and attempting to understand and expose the inequitable processes that these associations and beliefs set into motion.

Now, back to my original point: This is why I find the “setting high expectations” rhetoric so meaningless. Simply saying that we strive for a culture of high expectations does very little to create one — unless all we mean is that is that we need to raise test-scores. But test-scores are not expectations, nor do they represent expectations in any meaningful way. In fact, standards are not expectations either. Rather, “standards act as filters mediating the relationship between evaluations and expectations.” Think about the following: A score of 14 correct answers out of 20 is sufficient demonstration of ability if the standard is 12 or more correct responses, but the same score becomes unconvincing evidence if that standard is set at 17 or more.

Standards are what allow us to maintain high or low expectations in the face of hard evidence that should disconfirm preconceived ideas. Say a boy and a girl perform equally well on a math task. If we implicitly hold lower expectations for the girl’s math competence, the girl’s good performance will conflict or appear inconsistent with what we (unconsciously) anticipated – a cognitive dissonance of sorts. This tension is “resolved” with standards: I raise the standards for the girl only and require her (not the boy) to provide more evidence of math ability. In other words, I use a stricter standard to judge the girl’s performance. This is why standards need to be as objective and explicit possible; when standards are clear and agreed upon beforehand it’s harder to use them in the arbitrary (albeit unconscious) manner I just described.*

In sum, raising expectations (and making standards not just high but also explicit) can have a powerful effect across a range of socio-emotional and academic domains, but it can’t be done with a magic wand; it is essential that we get into the weeds some more, which is where I turn next.

Status & Expectations In the Classroom

Classroom groups, like all other social groups, develop the kinds of hierarchies that I’ve mentioned above. Students who have a high status are more active, and are seen as more competent and influential. Meanwhile, low status students struggle to get recognized; they don’t talk as much and, when they do, their ideas are often ignored. Classrooms are not naturally equitable environments — in fact, most social settings aren’t. But the teacher can alter these dynamics in very profound ways and change classroom expectations effectively using strategies such as assigning competence to low status students. As I explained in a previous post:

Students tend to believe and respect the evaluations that teachers make of them. Thus, if the teacher publicly commends a low status student for being strong on a particular (and real) ability, that student will tend to believe the evaluation. At the same time, the other students in the classroom are likely to accept the evaluation as valid. Once this happens, the expectations for the student’s competence – as well as his/her relative status in the classroom – can rise dramatically, which is likely to result in increased activity and influence of the low status student as well as increased success in future classroom tasks.

Raising expectations for all students is possible, but it has to be done carefully and intentionally. Also, for this type of intervention to be effective, teachers and students need to be in a context that conceptualizes ability broadly:

Teachers need to be able to convince their students that there are different ways to be “smart.” (…) Tasks that require multiple abilities give teachers the opportunity to give credit to such students for their academic and intellectual accomplishments.

When tasks are interesting, challenging and varied, they require different abilities — since different learners have different abilities, students can take turns as leaders. By contrast, when assignments are narrowly defined, the same students tend to do all the talking while others are systematically made to feel as though they have nothing to contribute. In other words, activities and assignments can themselves become the basis for displays of dominance within the group.

Cohen and colleagues explained that students of teachers who assigned standardized tasks, used competitive evaluation, and permitted little autonomy and decision-making were more likely to agree when ranking one another on reading ability than students of teachers who assigned individualized tasks, used less competitive evaluation and assigned more work to be done in small groups. This is important because greater agreement on the ranking of a status characteristic (in this case, reading ability), suggests that the characteristic is more powerful in that particular context, which means that it shapes expectations for competence more strongly: Good readers (thus good students) versus bad readers (thus bad students).

I should probably clarify that some status characteristics (including, for example, reading ability in the elementary grades) are what we call “diffuse.” That is, a high ranking in that characteristic influences expectations across a wide range of domains — in this case, the children who are the better readers are also thought to be smarter in other areas, even when such areas are unrelated to the act of reading. By contrast, the child who is a poor reader — an extremely bright dyslexic student, for example — can come to be perceived, by him/herself and others, as a poor student.

Implications in the Current Context

To recap, I explained what expectations are, how they are formed and how they shape classroom social dynamics and learning. I also said that expectations can be altered and that teachers are instrumental in equalizing learning conditions and raising expectations for low status students. Finally, I noted that a precondition for effective interventions is that the context needs to be one in which multiple abilities are valued. In fact, more competitive classrooms where students focus on standardized tasks tend to develop more rigid hierarchies and differentiation than classrooms where tasks are more diverse and the environment is less competitive. This is cause for concern in today’s climate, where many teachers, parents and students are worried about the misuse and overuse of standardized tests and their unintended consequences (e.g., narrowing of the curriculum, competitive rather than cooperative environment).

The research I highlighted suggests that the notion of high expectations that everyone so fervently proclaims might very be hard to foster, given current ideas about school reform. Indeed, the current context may in fact contribute to creating less equitable classrooms — classrooms where performance expectations are more differentiated, high for some students and low for others — making it much harder for educators to ensure that all children enjoy similar opportunities to speak up, showcase their diverse strengths, receive praise and approval and, as a result, gain self-confidence and experience the kind of social belonging that can actually help fuel more engagement and deeper learning.


* In the context of education “reverse double standards” or the practice of using a more lenient standard to judge the lower status person are also a concern.