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Saturday / November 18

Seven Ways to Raise Expectations for All Students

This is part IV of a four-part blog series on race and teacher expectations. Click these links to access blogs: I, II and III.


Research suggests a correlation between teacher expectations and student achievement (Brophy, 1983). In the U.S. we also have a systemic issue of educators having lower expectations for kids of color, ELLs, and kids living in poverty. Whether or not we see the issue of inequitable expectations in our own practice, it exists as the proverbial elephant in the room when we look honestly at the reality many students experience in our schools.

A district can invest in dynamic technology, implement innovative curricula, train teachers in every expert strategy, but if expectations remain low for certain groups of students, those reform efforts will not close opportunity gaps.

We need every teacher to believe in the full potential of every kid. Most of us share this belief, in theory. In practice, things get a little more complicated. It’s easy, for example, in a school where most students underperform, to adjust our expectations of what is possible to fit what we see. It is much more challenging to hold a vision that extends beyond the status quo, and help kids grow into that vision.

A major part of my work as a consultant is helping schools shift from a culture of tolerating diversity, to one in which all educators are in continuous inquiry about students, and what shifts in teaching are essential to ensure they thrive. The shift involves both changes in mindset and concrete actions to make expectations visible, shared, and part of a cycle of continuous inquiry to improve teaching so that all kids learn.

Seven Actions to Raise Expectations

Here seven powerful practices you can use in your school to open pathways to possibility for all students, especially ELLs, students of color, students living in poverty, or any students who are not yet thriving in your school:

  1. Get explicit about implicit bias. Engage in inside-out practices to uncover implicit biases, embrace an asset-based mindset about diversity, and engage in culturally relevant leadership and instruction. For excellent resources on this work, see all of the links I reference in posts I and II of this series.
  2. End deficit discourse about kids. How we talk about kids with other educators reflects and shapes our expectations for those students’ success. Make a school-wide agreement to engage in asset-based discourse about kids. Use the tables I shared in my previous blog post to reframe deficit statements you say or hear. It takes a village to end deficit discourse. Collaborate to make this intentional change.
  3. Collaborate to calibrate expectations. Use exemplars of student work to define together what success looks like for each grade level and content area. Use shared rubrics to get specific about the criteria of success, and collaborate to compare how you score the same work sample using the same rubric. As you discuss different approaches to scoring, justify your thinking with evidence from the rubric and the students’ work. (This is also an excellent collaborative activity to do with students to make learning criteria visible, build evaluation and justification skills, and support self-reflection and revision).
  4. Shift the focus from teaching to student learning. This is a change in mindset from “I taught and they didn’t learn” to “until they learn, I have not taught.” Administrators help shift the focus to student learning by looking for student evidence of learning and engagement in classrooms, rather than holding teachers to a checklist of strategies. Teachers help shift the focus to student learning by looking in every lesson for evidence of student thinking and learning, and using that data to reflect on what is working and what needs to change.
  5. Share ownership for impact. When there is evidence that students don’t learn, ask, “What can we do differently to ensure they do?” Create a safe culture among administrators and teachers to be learners, so everyone in the community of the school can look at failures with courageous humility in order to grow. When kids don’t learn, avoid blaming factors beyond the school’s control. Avoid shame and defensiveness. Roll up your sleeves together with the curiosity to figure out what needs to change, and the courage to act.
  6. Be strategic with scaffolds. Scaffolds, when used as temporary supports to help students excel in new ways, are an essential part of raising expectations in schools. They can also become a life sentence for low-level work. One example is the sentence frame, a popular scaffold for helping ELLs thrive with academic discussions and writing. Some administrators expect every teacher across a school to use sentence frames. This is a mistake. A better approach is to focus on the goal that students will be able to use academic language to engage in rich conversations and writing about content learning. If a class struggles with this goal, encourage the use of sentence frames as a tool to get started. If a class thrives with this goal without sentence frames, celebrate this higher level of student achievement and learn from the pedagogy in that classroom.
  7. Open doors to peer observation inquiry. Make high expectations a reality by collaborating to address a student achievement challenge that matters for equity in your school. Plan, teach, observe, and reflect on lessons together to improve your impact. The observation inquiry process is effective in elevating teacher expectations of ELLs, students of color, and students living in poverty because it supports teams in calibrating expectations, shifting the focus from teaching to learning, sharing ownership for impact, and refining instruction continuously to ensure all students thrive. See (Singer, 2015) for a practical guide to facilitating observation inquiry including videos, protocols and reproducible tools.

Which approaches do you find most effective for raising educators’ expectations in linguistically, culturally, and racially diverse schools?

How do you act on high expectations to improve teaching continuously so that every learner thrives?

Sources and Recommended Readings:

Brophy, J. E. (1983). Research on the self-fulfilling prophecy and teacher expectations. in Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 75(5), Oct 1983, 631-661.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). “Fighting for Our Lives: Preparing Teachers to Teach African American Students, Journal of Teacher Education, 51(3): 206-214. May-Jun 2000.

Lindsey, R. B., Robins, K. N., & Terrell, R. (2009). Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Singer, T. W. (2015). Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Teacher Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Singleton, G. (2015). Courageous Conversations about Race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale.

Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.

Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

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