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Key research evidence

There is considerable research evidence that the expectations that teachers have and communicate for students’ achievement can affect their learning outcomes. Thomas Good and Jere Brophy (1997) define teacher expectations as the “inferences that teachers make about the future behaviour or academic achievement of their students, based on what they know about these students now” (Good & Brophy, 1997, p. 79). Brophy had earlier (1983) concluded that “the existence of a teacher expectation for a particular student’s performance increases the probability that the student’s performance will move in the direction expected, and not in the opposite direction” (Brophy, 1983, p. 633).

Teachers can have and communicate expectations for individual students or for groups of students.

There is also debate and discomfort in the education sector about the related concepts of ‘deficit theorising’ and ‘inevitability’. Some researchers indicate links between teachers’ deficit expectations of student achievement and their low perception of various groups of students as potential learners. For example, Alison St. George (1983) revealed that most teachers in her New Zealand study perceived their Māori students more negatively than their Pākehā students and had lower expectations for their potential achievement. She linked these expectations to teachers’ implied beliefs that their Māori students came from home backgrounds that were less conducive to academic learning than those of their Pākehā students and that their Māori students showed less interest in school-based learning than their other students.

Russell Bishop and his colleagues (Bishop, Berryman, Tiakiwai & Richardson, 2003) observe little change from the time of St George’s research. They note, in their analysis of teacher interviews: “Deficit theorising is the major impediment to Māori students’ educational achievement for it results in teachers having low expectations of Māori students and reduced feelings of agency which in turn creates a downward spiralling, self-fulfilling prophecy of Māori student achievement and failure” (p. 204). In his introduction to the Teacher Professional Learning and Development BES (2007), Bishop in fact contends that “Higher expectations cannot be taught or imposed independent of context; they develop out of improved relationships” (p. xix).

Gwenneth Phillips, Stuart McNaughton, and Shelley MacDonald identify ‘having high expectations’ as a key pedagogical element of ‘picking up the pace’ amongst underachieving students in low decile primary schools (Phillips, McNaughton & MacDonald, 2002, p. 12).

However, many researchers also recognise that merely having expectations for student achievement does not directly affect student achievement. What is most important is the pedagogical actions that teachers use to generate fulfilment (or non-fulfilment) of these expectations (Brophy, 1983; Good & Brophy, 1997; Miller & Satchwell, 2006; Timperley & Phillips, 2003). Christine Rubie-Davies refers to these actions as the “discriminatory teacher behaviours … [associated with] high expectation and low expectation students” (Rubie-Davies, 2010, p. 122).

Helen Timperley and Gwenneth Phillips point out the links between teachers’ expectations and the various goals they establish for student achievement, the planning they develop to address learning goals, the tasks they select for student engagement, and the instructional strategies they use. They suggest that teachers’ expectations for student achievement “become their goals for the students and shape their daily classroom decisions and actions” (Timperley & Phillips, 2003, p. 628).

Kate Miller and Candice Satchwell sum up the viewpoint of many researchers when they conclude that “accumulated research over the past thirty years shows that high teacher expectations produce positive impact on … students’ perceptions and achievement, but low expectations produce negative impact” (Miller & Satchwell, 2006, p. 137). Teachers who have appropriate expectations for student achievement and communicate them through appropriate pedagogical actions can affect learning outcomes, especially at the class level.

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