Research Matters / Flip the Script on Fate Control - ASCD
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November 1, 2016

Research Matters / Flip the Script on Fate Control

Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success.

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A half century ago, James Coleman, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins University, released a study that sent shock waves across America. His report, based on some 660,000 surveys of students, teachers, and administrators in 4,000 schools across the United States, was commissioned in hopes of demonstrating how schools could counteract the effects of poverty. Contrary to expectations, it found that the effect of a variety of nonschool factors, most tied to socioeconomic status, outweighed school characteristics—for instance, the quality of teachers. The report's sober conclusion: "Schools provide no opportunity at all" to bring impoverished and minority students up to the starting line. Rather, schools allow them to "fall farther behind the white majority in the development of critical skills" (1966, p. 20).

This wasn't the conclusion many wanted to hear. Lyndon Johnson himself was disappointed by the report. He had hoped it would provide convincing evidence that straightforward policy levers, like boosting funding for schools, could be a centerpiece of his War on Poverty.

Tucked into the 800-page report, however, was a powerful finding that made visible a formerly invisible barrier to success: A single "student attitude factor" (or lack thereof) showed a "stronger relationship to achievement than … all the 'school' factors together" (p. 22).

Buffeted by Fate, or Master of One's Destiny?

To glean how much students felt they could control their own destinies, Coleman's surveys asked students to respond to a handful of statements like these:

  1. ▪ "When I try, somebody or something stops me."

  2. ▪ "Luck is more important than work."

  3. ▪ "People like me don't have much of a chance."

Minority students were more apt to agree with these statements—a heart-wrenching finding that led Coleman to conclude that "minority pupils … have far less conviction than whites that they can affect their own environments and futures" (p. 22). Yet there was glimmer of hope: When minority students felt they could control their destinies, their achievement was "higher than that of whites who lack that conviction" (p. 22).

In the years that followed, researchers built on these findings, demonstrating that students' perceptions fall along a continuum of locus of control: Internals are those who believe they can shape future outcomes with their actions, and externals are those who see their circumstances shaped by forces beyond their control. In 1986, Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, and Rock found that high school dropouts were more likely to be externals. Later studies found that academically successful low-income minority students were more likely to be internals (Finn & Rock, 1997). Subsequent research (Cadinu, Maass, Lombardo, & Frigerio, 2006) has shown that having a strong internal locus of control can counteract the detrimental effects of stereotype threat—the phenomenon of students performing poorly when they feel at risk of being judged on the basis of their race, gender, or social group. Finally, a recent meta-analysis (Richardson, Abraham, & Bond, 2012) found that feeling in control of one's life, combined with academic self-efficacy and goal orientation, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the variance in university students' grade point averages.

Can We Help Students?

My point is not to blame students for believing that life outcomes are beyond their control. This is a predictable response to living with the uncertainty of poverty or in the long shadow of discrimination. So educators shouldn't be surprised that many poor and minority students tend to see themselves as lacking "fate control."

Yet we might wonder how we can help students living with constant reminders of adverse external forces flip the script, so to speak, and see themselves as subjects who can act—not simply be acted upon. Research finds that providing students with small opportunities to set and achieve goals helps them begin to do this by mentally linking effort and results, which in turn nurtures a more internal locus of control.

Bandura and Schunk (1981) found that providing students with "proximal" personal learning goals (such as aiming to complete six pages of instructional items during each class session) helped them achieve at higher levels than did having students set "distal" goals (like completing all 42 pages over seven sessions) or no goals at all. Accomplishing these small goals also appeared to help students foster the first kernels of fate control—a belief in their ability to overcome challenges with effort.

Creating Internals in a World of Externals

What may be most striking (and worrisome), however, is that a meta-analysis of thousands of surveys of U.S. college students during the past 40 years found that, on average, students' locus of control has become more external over the years. The average college student in 2002 had a more external locus of control than 80 percent of students in the early '60s (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004). The researchers speculated that shifts in our cultural ethos may be to blame. U.S. society has moved away from a prevailing belief (later characterized as a myth) that hard work is the ticket to a better life and toward a prevailing view that individuals are powerless in the face of large institutions, unpredictable outside forces, and internal biology.

Consider, for example the effects of 24-hour news channels streaming uncontrollable events like terrorism and natural disasters. People have successfully sued fast-food chains for making them obese. Students who struggle to learn often hear that their struggle stems from having an attention disorder—but they may not hear concrete things they can do to master that disorder.

Thus, we may face an uphill battle when it comes to helping students develop an internal locus of control. Yet it's worth keeping in mind that although 50 years ago Coleman labelled fate control as a "nonschool factor"—something beyond educators' reach—since then we've found that educators can nurture students' internal locus of control by creating safe, secure, predictable learning environments. In so doing, we may be able to help students flip the script and develop new beliefs: "When I try, somebody supports me and something inside keeps me going"; "Work is more important than luck"; and ultimately, "People like me have a chance."


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personal & Social Psychology, 41(3), 586–598.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Lombardo, M., & Frigerio, S. (2006). Stereotype threat: The moderating role of locus of control beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36(2) 183–197.

Coleman, J. S. Equality of educational opportunity study. (1966). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Ekstrom, R. B., Goertz, M. E., Pollack, J. M., & Rock, D. A. (1986). Who drops out of high school and why? Findings of a national study. Teachers College Record, 87(3), 356–371.

Finn, J. D., & Rock, D. A. (1997). Academic success among students at risk for school failure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(2), 221–234.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students' academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353–387.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It's beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960–2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(3) 308–319.

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