As educators, we see it every day: Some students succeed with our help, others succeed in spite of us, and some fail despite our best efforts. Teachers want to do everything in their power to offer every student the opportunity for academic success. But we really know little about what school conditions spell opportunity from the students' perspective. What characteristics of school climate and teaching make students feel empowered to achieve?
To find out, the Aspirations Research Center at the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) listened to students in 627 schools across the United States. Between 2006 and 2010, QISA surveyed 456,021 students in grades 6–12 through our My Voice survey. The results send a clear signal that both student achievement and student opportunity are connected to the kinds of expectations, relationships, and chances for participation that students perceive they have in school. We've come to think of the "opportunity gap" some students face as having three elements: the expectations gap, the relationships gap, and the participation gap.
The Expectations Gap
There are two kinds of expectations gaps. The first is the differing expectations that teachers hold for individual students. Teachers do not approach all students with the same assumptions about their potential; they are often influenced by whether a student is enrolled in advanced courses or on track for college. Less than one-third of teachers believe schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards and graduate with the skills for college-level work (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Balfanz, 2009). And anyone who works in schools knows that students have a great capacity to live up or down to our expectations.
The second expectations gap involves the difference between students' expectations of themselves and what they perceive to be teachers' opinion of their potential. The My Voice survey adds insight here. Although 91 percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement "I believe I can be successful," only 70 percent agreed that "Teachers think I can be successful." In other words, slightly more than one-fourth of students did not think their teachers expected them to succeed in school.
Students are acutely aware of the view teachers hold of them, and that awareness affects their actions. It's challenging to push students to take advanced courses or even attend classes when they suspect teachers expect them to fail. For example, a recent study of 262 black middle school students concluded that these students' reports of their teachers' expectations were significant predictors of their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement in school (Tyler & Boelter, 2008).
Comparing students' responses on the survey sheds further light. Students who agreed with the statement, "Teachers believe I can be successful" reported remarkably different school attitudes than did students who disagreed with this statement. For example, 75 percent of students who believed teachers expected them to succeed also agreed that tests were an important part of their education. Correspondingly, many students who felt that teachers did not believe they could be successful also did not believe tests were important. Because tests are one measure of student achievement, communicating the importance of assessments to all learners is essential if we are to narrow the achievement gap.
Or consider students' responses to the statement, "Getting good grades is important to me." Of the students who agreed that "Teachers believe I can be successful," 87 percent also agreed that getting good grades is important. In stark contrast, only 52 percent of students who did not think teachers expected them to succeed said getting good grades was important.
Students' beliefs about the importance of grades affects their achievement. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, what counts most in predicting whether an individual student will finish high school are grades and attendance. More than 95 percent of students with a B average or higher in their freshman year of high school eventually graduate (Allensworth & Easton, 2007). Teacher expectations affect more than just the classes students choose: Expectations may well affect students' beliefs in the importance of day-to-day academic requirements like studying for tests or striving for good grades.
The schools in which we have worked have tried a multitude of practices to communicate high expectations. For example, Polson High School in Polson, Montana, has developed a program through which all students research postsecondary options; assess their own interests, abilities, and skills; and create a four-year plan for their education. All students interview people in various career fields, investigate one career in depth, research options for postsecondary education or training, and create a senior presentation on this information. On our survey, seventy-eight percent of Polson students agreed that "Teachers expect me to be successful," perhaps because they are steeped in high expectations.
The Relationships Gap
Looking closer at students' perspectives has shown us that strong relationships with teachers are crucial. The quality of teacher relationships seems to be correlated to how much effort students put forth in their school work, and indeed, research indicates that effort is more important than innate ability when it comes to achievement (Dweck, 2006). As both the number of standardized tests and the stakes related to passing them increase, student effort must keep pace.
Our survey results imply that building relationships with students helps increase their effort, which is consistent with research showing that the relationships students have with teachers is one of the best predictors of hard work and engagement in school (Osterman, 2000). When comparing responses of students who agreed with the statement, "I put forth my best effort at school" with those who did not, we saw dramatically different perspectives on student–teacher relationships. Students who said they put forth their best effort were twice as likely as students who said they did not to agree with the statement, "Teachers care about me as an individual." Similarly, students who said they put forth their best effort were twice as likely to agree that "Teachers respect students."
Another telling survey finding was that 56 percent of students who reported that they put forth their best effort also said they have a teacher they can talk with if they experience a problem, whereas only 32 percent of the students who did not put forth their best effort agreed with this statement.
Sadly, some survey results indicated that many students lack a solid, trusting relationship with a teacher. For example, only 45 percent of students surveyed agreed that "Teachers care if I am absent from school." How is it that more than half of the almost 500,000 students surveyed do not believe teachers care if they show up? Teachers must work harder to develop relationships with students and change these kinds of perceptions. Doing so will foster students' connectedness at school—an undeniable catalyst for increasing students' investment in learning.
Schools can—and should—implement practices that lead to strong teacher–student relationships. The Kennedy School in Somerville, Massachusetts, for instance, uses a creative project to help teachers learn about students and help students feel "known" at school. The school, at which more than half the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, assigns a series of writing and art projects through which students focus on their personal heroes. The project culminates in Heroes Day, when students' heroes come to school to listen to the stories written about them. Recognizing the people who make a difference in students' lives, Kennedy teachers believe, is a way to show students you care. One student wrote,
I picked [my grandfather] because of all he's been through. He grew up during World War II and came to America, married my grandma, and had my mom and uncle. … He still, to this day, faces challenges head on. This essay showed me that I have people to look up to.
It's interesting that Kennedy School students' My Voice survey responses showed high results on measures reflecting teacher expectations and student effort. Eighty-three percent of students agreed that "Teachers think I can be successful" and 73 percent said "I put forth my best effort at school." Both percentages are significantly higher than the average for all survey respondents.
At Saunders Trade and Technical School in Yonkers, New York, where a majority of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, school leadership makes clear that knowing kids individually is a top priority. In 9th grade, students are grouped into small learning teams, and from 10th grade on, each student learns within one of three academies focused on a career interest. When we interviewed Saunders students, they consistently told us "our teachers know us." The librarian at Saunders, Gina Bell, told us that when she was hired, the principal advised her to get to know her students. Bell replied, "I have 1,500 students!" The school secretary handed her a yearbook and responded, "You'd better get started."
The Participation Gap
By the participation gap, we mean the gulf in opportunity and advantage between those few students who are actively engaged in their classes and the life of the school and the many others who are not. Students must be enthusiastic if they're going to learn at high levels; learning should be an adventure rather than a chore. Our survey results reflect how urgent it is to change features of the typical school environment that contribute to the participation gap.
Only 64 percent of survey respondents said they learn new, interesting things in school. Only 54 percent said they enjoy participating in their classes, and fewer than 49 percent enjoy being at school. Nearly half (47 percent) agreed with the statement, "School is boring."
How can this be acceptable? To close achievement gaps, schools must cultivate an atmosphere that connects students meaningfully to their learning—one that leads young people to learn content that's relevant for them, encourages them to ask questions, and puts them at ease in taking risks.
Equally alarming are students' perceptions of their connection to school. Only 62 percent of students surveyed agreed that "School is a welcoming and friendly place," only 49 percent said that "I am proud of my school," and only 48 percent believed "Teachers care about me as an individual." It seems challenging, if not impossible, for students to fully participate in their educational pursuits if they aren't proud to be at school and don't feel cared about. Students' perceptions of school conectedness correlated with their responses to questions about striving for goals: Sixty-eight percent of students who agreed that "School is a welcoming and friendly place" also agreed that "It's important to set high goals" and "I work hard to reach my goals." Yet only 39 percent of students who did not see school as a welcoming place agreed with these statements on goals.
Schools that pay attention to eye-opening statistics like these realize that students living in our knowledge-rich society learn differently than they did in past decades when knowledge was harder to obtain. They engage their students through relevance, application, and leadership opportunities. At Raleigh Charter High School in North Carolina, for example, the mission is to create world citizens. Teachers continually reflect on how important it is to serve one's community and show how in-school learning connects to such service. Required courses include advanced placement and advanced-level environmental science as well as three levels of civics and economics. Citizenship is a major theme in U.S. and world history classes; many writing assignments reflect on service and citizenship experiences. One Raleigh student told us,
It's not uncommon for a student to say during a class, "I don't understand how this applies." Then the teacher's eyes light up! The teacher will say, "I was hoping you would ask that question. Let me tell you the four examples I've been thinking of."
Volunteerism is integral to the school. Each year there are six community workdays—three in the fall and three in the spring. On the My Voice survey, 84 percent of Raleigh Charter students agreed with the statement, "I believe I can make a difference in this world," compared with the national average of 63 percent.
As educators begin to pay attention to these gaps that are all too evident in schools, opportunities will emerge for students to achieve. Although we can't ignore the effects of race and income on the achievement gap, in our research and our work in schools we see that achievement is significantly related to the expectations, relationships, and engagement students either enjoy or do not enjoy every day. The good news is that educators who want to improve student achievement can begin today by minding all the gaps.
10 Practices to Close the Gaps
To close the expectations gap
- Show students you believe they can be successful by using a "here's how to do better next time" approach when you need to correct work. Let students know what they're doing well.
- Share with each student individually what you expect from him or her.
- Hold students accountable for their actions.
- Encourage students to share success stories with one another.
To close the relationships gap
- Follow up on absent students. Let them know it's because you care about them, not just to chase down missing work.
- Invite students to brown-bag lunches in your room. Promising homemade cookies helps!
- Survey students about their personal, social, and academic goals at the beginning of each term.
To close the participation gap
- Involve all students in school leadership initiatives by using student surveys and fostering dialogue about important issues. Show you value students' opinions.
- Create a classroom atmosphere that welcomes participation. Ask open-ended questions and set a "There are no stupid questions" policy.
- Develop after-school opportunities focused on the interests of students who shun traditional activities.
Allensworth, E., & Easton, J. (2007). What matters for staying on-track and graduating. Retrieved from Consortium on Chicago School Research at
Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J. J., Jr., & Balfanz, R. (2009). The high school dropout problem: Perspectives of teachers and principals. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, 75(3), 20–26.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Osterman, K. (2000). Students' need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3) 323–367.
Tyler, K., & Boelter, C. (2008). Linking Black middle school students' perceptions of teachers' expectations to academic engagement and efficacy. The Negro Education Review, 59 (1–2).
Authors' note: The My Voice Survey, developed by Russell J. Quaglia, gives students in grades 6–12 an opportunity to voice their feelings and opinions about their classes, their relationships with teachers, and their school's climate and culture. Many schools choose to have students take the survey annually. Visit
www.millionvoice.org to access the survey.
Russell J. Quaglia is president,
Kristine M. Fox (207-874-7472) is director of product development/senior field associate, and
Michael J. Corso is chief academic officer at Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations in Portland, Maine.
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