High Expectations


In education, the term high expectations, or the phrase common high expectations, typically refers to any effort to set the same high educational standards for all students in a class, school, or education system. The concept of high expectations is premised on the philosophical and pedagogical belief that a failure to hold all students to high expectations effectively denies them access to a high-quality education, since the educational achievement of students tends to rise or fall in direct relation to the expectations placed upon them. In other words, students who are expected to learn more or perform better generally do so, while those held to lower expectations usually achieve less.

The effect that expectations can have on performance—commonly called the Pygmalion effect—has been extensively researched and documented in a variety of fields. In education, the seminal work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, published in their 1968 book Pygmalion in the Classroom, is considered the first major attempt to document the effects that teacher expectations have on student performance.

In many ways, the concept of high expectations is not just an educational or instructional issue, but also an ethical and social-justice issue. The concept of high expectations could be seen as an antipode to the often-heard phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” which refers to the lowering of expectations—either intentionally or unintentionally—for certain student groups, such as minorities, low-income students, special-education students, English-language learners, and other groups that have historically underperformed or underachieved. The basic idea is that lowering expectations for certain groups only exacerbates and perpetuates the conditions that cause or contribute to lower educational, professional, financial, or cultural achievement and success. In education, the way to break this self-perpetuating “cycle of low expectations,” it is believed, is to raise academic expectations and make sure all students receive the assistance they need to reach those high expectations.

For related discussions, see equity, rigor, learning standards, and stereotype threat.

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