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Great Expectations

Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development

by Robert Rosenthal, by Lenore Jacobson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 240 pp., $4.95

On the Outskirts of HOPE: Educating Youth from Poverty Areas

by Helaine S. Dawson
McGraw-Hill, 329 pp., $5.95

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.1 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:

STUDY OF REFLECTED ACQUISITION

(Harvard-National Science Foundation)

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 unfamiliar to the teachers; “late bloomers” were selected at random from the student body. The teachers were then told that some of their pupils had turned out to be “late bloomers,” and that they were ready to “bloom.” The researchers then sat back and waited to see how the students performed.

There is one aspect of Rosenthal and Jacobson’s work which they themselves didn’t explore: the effect of Rosenthal’s Harvard credentials and the false credentials of the test upon the teachers’ expectations. The teachers were fooled into believing that the test of “inflected acquisition” was actually measuring something. Presumably they were persuaded by the weight of authority (Harvard, The National Science Foundation, etc.) that a simple paper and pencil test could tell them more about crucial characteristics of their pupils than they were able to perceive in their daily contacts with the children. The timidity with which the teachers seemed to accept the premises of the “test of inflected acquisition,” and the ease with which their expectations were manipulated by the researchers show how obedient and trusting they were, and all too willing to accept external authority. It may also indicate why teachers, themselves obedient, expect their pupils to be as blindly responsive to authority as they are.

THE MAIN PROPOSITION of Pygmalion in the Classroom was supported by the results of the experiment—the “late bloomers” bloomed. The reading scores of students designated as late bloomers grew at a significantly greater rate than that of the non-blooming pupils they had been matched against. These changes were particularly dramatic in the lower grades and for pupils in the “middle tracks.”

Girls bloomed more in the reasoning sphere of intellectual functioning, and boys bloomed more in the verbal sphere of intellectual functioning when some kind of unspecified blooming was expected of them. Furthermore, these gains were more likely to occur to a dramatic degree in the lower grades. That susceptibility to the unintended influence of the prophesying teacher should be greater in the lower grades comes as no special surprise. All lines of evidence tend to suggest that it is younger children who are the more susceptible to various forms of influence processes.

There are two particularly interesting cases of late blooming. José, a Mexican American boy, had an IQ of 61 before he was labeled a “late bloomer.” A year later he had gained 45 IQ points, testing at 106. Thus he moved in a year from being classed as mentally retarded to above average. Another Mexican American child, Maria, moved from 88 to 128—i.e., from “slow learner” to “gifted child,” according to the school’s classification. These two results alone are staggering, yet many similar, though less dramatic, advances occurred when the teachers’ expectations of the children changed.

The implications of these results will upset many school people, yet these are hard facts. Can failure in ghetto schools be attributed to teachers’ expectations and not to the students’ environment or ability? Can one even carry Rosenthal’s results a bit further and speculate, for example, on whether discipline problems in ghetto schools arise because teachers expect them to? Do students lack “motivation” because teachers don’t expect them to be motivated? The results described in Pygmalion in the Classroom reach beyond the ghetto. They condemn the tracking system prevalent in elementary and secondary schools throughout the country. Often in the first, or at least second, grade, children are grouped according to “ability.” The determination of ability is made by the teachers or by whatever “objective” tests of school achievement they administer. Some schools have higher, middle, and lower tracks. Others draw the line finer and often seven IQ points or four months’ difference in reading achievement scores become the criterion for class placement. Teachers are keenly aware of how their class stands in the general school hierarchy. Almost without exception the grouping according to track is self-perpetuating; and the students usually remain in the same track throughout their school career.2

Tracking also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both the teacher and the student are aware that upper-track classes are supposed to perform well and lower-track ones aren’t. They expect things to work out that way and usually see to it in many unspoken ways that they do. This is as true in white middle-class suburban schools as in those of the urban ghettos. Not long ago I visited a C-stream class in a suburban high school. The students were demoralized and the teacher bored. He felt that nothing could be done with the students, and they agreed. One of the students asked me what I was doing visiting his class since the students were dumb and couldn’t possibly interest a visitor. This boy of fifteen considered himself dumb because he was told that in school; it seemed to me a devastating commentary on the destructiveness of the schools.

But the tracking system is also a disservice to the so-called bright students who come to believe that brightness consists of the ability to perform well on tests. It frequently alienates them from their true abilities. It also cuts them off from children in the lower tracks, making the notion of the public school as a community a mockery; though it certainly succeeds in reflecting a society which pretends to be democratic and yet limits participation in the democracy to those who succeed and conform to the people in power.

The implications of the study described in Pygmalion in the Classroom also extend beyond education. For Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research methods also involved the manipulation of teachers, whose cooperation was enlisted in bad faith. The researchers assumed god-like roles; they were the only people in the school who knew what the “experiment” was all about and who were not themselves the subjects. They presumed their involvement was neutral and that their work was simply an attempt to uncover “objective” (though statistical) knowledge. Yet can a social science “experiment” involving the manipulation of human beings be neutral? Moreover, what is the moral and human cost of acquiring knowledge through deceit and bad faith? This study does not reveal what the teachers who have been studied feel, nor whether they have learned something about themselves that could have some effect.

The results of Rosenthal’s work are, of course, gratifying. They confirm what many critics of the schools have been saying. Yet an approach which is itself so totalitarian makes one question the value of acquiring knowledge by treating people as objects of an experiment. Surely there must be a more direct way of confronting teachers with their attitudes, and studying them in a more direct way. We do not need more people in the schools who cannot be trusted, even if they happen to be social scientists.

NOT ALL TEACHERS have low expectations of their pupils; some even have great ones. One such teacher is Helaine Dawson, whose book describes her experiences teaching in a San Francisco ghetto job training program. Miss Dawson cares about her pupils and is convinced that she can teach them anything. She also knows they can learn and expects that they will. Her advice to young teachers reveals her attitude toward her students:

Teaching young people from poverty areas and ghettos requires someone who is flexible and able to cope with unexpected daily crises. Teaching in the milieu is strenuous. The daily struggle is sometimes so intense that you begin to think you won’t be able to go on. Teachers need physical stamina and the skin of a crocodile to survive. If you can endure it, however, you will be rewarded by changes in the attitudes and behavior of your students and by a permanently close relationship between them and you.

On the Outskirts of HOPE is supposed to be a handbook for “educating youth from poverty areas” as well as an account of Helaine Dawson’s own teaching experience. The book shifts from personal narrative to remarks addressed specifically to teachers on how to function within their classrooms. Miss Dawson talks about her students, and recreates some of the conversations she had with them. This personal and often lively narrative is squeezed between sections written in textbook jargon. Miss Dawson believes that there is a technique for teaching in ghetto classrooms; she prescribes certain rules, which she feels will help teachers to function better.

The effort is not without its dangers. Formulas have not helped in the past to make teaching any more effective in ghetto schools. The manuals of most urban school systems are filled with enlightened ideas and useful advice. It is the human ability to function with black children and with poor children as children, and not merely as black and poor, that works in the classroom. When Miss Dawson speaks directly to teachers she sounds just like the manuals and textbooks on “compensatory” education that have so conspicuously failed to help teachers. Thus, in the first section of her book she says:

The basic precepts which I followed can be summed up and easily remembered by a mnemonic device, LACE.

L Listen and Learn

A Accept

C Create and Communicate

E Experiment and Evaluate

This advice is not bad or misguided. It is just that offering teachers a mnemonic device to learn modes of fundamental human behavior comes perilously close to substituting memorization for learning which is so prevalent in the schools.

Miss Dawson is a good teacher and a good person. Her personal narrative is a convincing version of the Pygmalion myth that Rosenthal and Jacobson referred to in the title of their book. Miss Dawson’s aim was to transform her ghetto students into individuals who would fit into the business world in the United States. She was aware that her black students’ dialects, hair and dress styles, sense of time and authority, didn’t suit the demands of middle-class white America. She was determined, in the gentlest and most seductive way possible, to move her students from where they were in their lives to where she felt they had to be. She even realized that it would not be easy for her students to change themselves just in order to get jobs. She advises:

It is important to remember that in the process of learning and changing there will be setbacks to infantile and socially unacceptable behavior from time to time. Neither you nor your students should be discouraged by such regressions if both of you understand the nature of change. The struggle between changing and remaining the same is a natural human phenomenon.

Thus, for example, she felt it was important for her pupils to acquire middle-class table manners. She brought eating utensils and place mats to class and demonstrated “proper positioning of utensils.” Then together they “managed to visit at least two restaurants… French and Italian.” Miss Dawson remarks, “These youths were now becoming part of the outside world”—on the terms of that world, of course. She wanted her students to make it, and went out of her way to reward their successes and was infinitely patient with their failures.

It was not only the students’ eating habits that she wanted to change. They had to learn to be punctual, dress conservatively, speak standard English, not be too demonstrative physically, recognize authority. All this had to be done as pleasantly as possible, by giving the students tempting samples of the rewards of middle-class life. The students visited business offices, were taken to the theater, to television studios, to white middle-class homes. They sampled all the goods of middle-class society which would be offered to them if only they would change.

There is much joy in Miss Dawson’s narrative. She watches as her pupils learn to fit in and informs the reader that most of them are now successfully working as general office clerks and office boys.

HOW MUCH PAIN and humiliation must Miss Dawson’s students have passed through in order to achieve the most menial roles in the corporate structure. They were taught to act as executives and were then made white collar janitors! Yet the issue is not simply the kind of jobs Miss Dawson’s students got. To become a member of the middle class, as white and as conforming as possible, is an act of self-hatred for many black people. And a white teacher who attempts to seduce her pupils into denying themselves is betraying them.

Miss Dawson would not agree with this analysis at all. She claims that for her “the authoritarian approach…is out.” Yet she gives herself away:

There is nothing haphazard about my method of operation. A great deal of thought goes into the structure of each session. Subject matter is not relegated to one session and then dropped. Office etiquette, health, work habits, and attitudes are some of the topics that weave in and out of the Personal Development course.

Structure implies a plan, although the plan may change with the exigencies which arise. Only with a basic plan will you and your students be able to achieve desirable goals.

Helaine Dawson sees authoritarianism only as a system of punishment, suspension, and failure. Yet authoritarianism takes other, more seductive forms. One of those can be those great expectations that Miss Dawson has for her students, that her pupils can become the adults she wants them to be. Certainly she wishes the best things in life for them. She loves her students; this is clear from her personal narrative. But she does them a disservice by trying to seduce them into a life many of them are certain to find inauthentic.

The best of expectations can be dangerous when they involve the lives of other people. Perhaps, instead of having expectations, one should rather suspend expectations entirely, and try to make it possible for children to become the adults they care to be. Instead, by making conformity the price of a job, Miss Dawson presented them with a severely limited social perspective. It is true that some children will want the kinds of jobs and lives for which Miss Dawson is preparing them; but there are other reasons for black students to acquire the skills and techniques of business than making it in the white world. They can learn to be clerks in order to know how to run their own offices, or to be supermarket supervisors in order to acquire the knowledge needed to set up food cooperatives in their own communities. They can learn such skills and techniques without changing their personal styles or denying their identities. Or they may reject this kind of learning altogether, and that must be their choice. The responsibility of the teacher is to present as many options as possible to his students, to be available with whatever knowledge and skill he has that may be of use, to try to give them the assurance and strength to make their own way.

  1. 1

    An example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is a favorable medical prognosis in a case of a cancer which caused the patient to move from despair to hope and became a crucial part of his cure.

  2. 2

    The little movement that does take place in the tracking system seems to be downward as “behavior” and “discipline” problems are weeded out of the top tracks and consigned to the bottom.

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