Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development
On the Outskirts of HOPE: Educating Youth from Poverty Areas
Most educational research focuses upon the success and failure of students or on the economic “effectiveness” of school systems. But there seems to be a tacit agreement between teachers and researchers (usually psychologists and sociologists) not to raise questions concerning the teachers themselves. It is difficult for researchers to enter a school to study teacher behavior, and they rarely do so. Yet two researchers, Robert Rosenthal, a psychologist, and Lenore Jacobson, a school administrator, have violated the non-aggression pact between teachers and researchers and studied the manipulation of teacher behavior in the classroom. Pygmalion in the Classroom is a report on the effect of a teacher’s expectations upon the performance of his pupils. The study is ingenious and the results obtained highly significant.
Rosenthal and Jacobson are concerned with self-fulfilling prophecies—i.e., those predictions of future events that become central factors in bringing about predicted events. As they say, “the central proposition of this book is that one person’s prophecy of another’s intellectual performance can come to determine that other’s intellectual performance.” They got the faculty of a school in South San Francisco to co-operate with them by pretending that they were conducting a scientific study of the performance of certain students in the school who were “late bloomers.” An official document describing the project was presented to the teachers:
All children show hills, plateaus, and valleys in their scholastic progress. The study being conducted at Harvard with the support of the National Science Foundation is interested in those children who show an unusual forward spurt of academic and intellectual functioning. When these spurts occur in children who have not been functioning too well academically, the result is familiarly referred to as “late blooming.”
As a part of our study we are further validating a test which predicts the likelihood that a child will show an inflection point or “spurt” within the near future. This test which will be administered in your school will allow us to predict which youngsters are most likely to show an academic spurt. The top 20 percent (approximately) of the scorers on this test will probably be found at various levels of academic functioning.
The development of the test for predicting inflections or “spurts” is not yet such that every one of the top 20 percent will show the spurt or “blooming” effect. But the top 20 percent of the children will show a more significant inflection or spurt in their learning within the next year or less than will the remaining 80 percent of the children.
Because of the experimental nature of the tests, basic principles of test construction do not permit us to discuss the test or test scores either with the parents or the children themselves.
Upon completion of this study, participating districts will be advised of the results.
There is no “inflected acquisition,” of course, nor is there a “test of late blooming.” Students were given an ordinary test of intelligence and achievement, but one …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.