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This School Year, Expect the Best

  By Karen Blaha, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
   This is a good time to talk about an important element to help children succeed in school. That element is expectation; it exerts a tremendous influence on what kids are able to achieve in school. Take a wide walk around a rich field of research and you'll see that schools can improve student learning when they urge teachers and students to set their sight high- and mean it.
   While just about every school, teacher, and parent would say that they do in fact hold high expectations for their children, what is declared might not truly be believed. It is the belief that moves the child. Teacher expectations of students tend to be self-fulfilling. The power of belief in you by someone you respect becomes a propelling force to believe in yourself. Yes, you can do this. But when students aren't expected to do well, it turns out that most often they don't.
   Just as students' belief in themselves can translate to low or high performance, teacher beliefs and behaviors toward students can affect how students perform in school. Research shows changes in teachers' nonverbal behavior depend on what they believe or assume about students. Whether or not it's intentional, teachers smile, lean and look toward the student, and look directly at them more frequently when they believe they are interacting with someone of high ability. But researchers report that highly effective teachers are tenacious in their high expectations for all students- they don't care who they are, where they come from, or what their family circumstances may be. Doesn't matter- they are expected to do well in school.
   It's a curious thing: In our country, many of us think that innate ability is what makes us successful academically. High ability equals high performance- low ability equals low performance. And, like the color of our eyes and skin, that's what it is, and that's that. But in many other countries, hard work and effort are believed to be what makes the difference in academic achievement. High expectations for all govern the approach, and if kids aren't succeeding, it's not because they're not smart enough to do it, it's because they're not working hard enough at it.
   And interestingly, despite the propensity of teenagers to complain about demanding teachers, a 1997 national survey by Public Agenda showed that American teenagers equated hard work with success and satisfaction, were not pleased by those teachers who demanded less, and resented it when rules were not enforced.
   It would be silly to suggest that just having high expectations for students is all that's needed for students to succeed. In the carrying out of any school day, teaching and learning is an enormously complex process. While all students can learn, the teaching and learning process indeed varies. As researchers discover more and more about how we learn, and how this new knowledge can be applied to help all kids succeed, it enlarges the context and the content of the learning experience.
   High expectations are a launching pad, a base from which to aim for the stars, even though-like a space capsule seeking it's destination- there are adjustments and course corrections on the way to achieving the student-learning mission.