Monday, November 12, 2018

Rising to expectations

A new working paper says:
We develop and estimate a joint model of the education and teacher-expectation production functions that identifies both the distribution of biases in teacher expectations and the impact of those biases on student outcomes via self-fulfilling prophecies. Our approach leverages a unique feature of a nationally representative dataset: two teachers provided their educational expectations for each student. Identification of causal effects exploits teacher disagreements about the same student, an idea we formalize using lessons from the measurement error literature. We provide novel, arguably causal evidence that teacher expectations affect students' educational attainment: Estimates suggest an elasticity of college completion with respect to teachers' expectations of about 0.12. On average, teachers are overly optimistic about students' ability to complete a four-year college degree. However, the degree of over-optimism of white teachers is significantly larger for white students than for black students. This highlights a nuance that is frequently overlooked in discussions of biased beliefs: less biased (i.e., more accurate) beliefs can be counterproductive if there are positive returns to optimism or if there are socio-demographic gaps in the degree of teachers' optimism; we find evidence of both.
I love this (because it fits my prior so nicely :) I went to a 2-year public math and science boarding school for 11th and 12th grade, and the education I got there was fantastic and clearly ahead of anything else available in the state. Of course many factors made that possible, including the selective admissions process, hiring of teachers with PhDs, having control over our entire daily schedules rather than just classroom hours, etc. But what stood out to me was the high expectations. The history teacher used to say "It's easy to raise expectations; what's difficult is raising performance" but on the contrary, I think raising expectations was the single most important trick OSSM pulled off, and it was able to do so credibly because of its unique position as an alternative school. Anyone who wasn't able to meet those expectations or who didn't like the inevitable slaughter of their GPA was free to go back to their home high school (and many did).

After OSSM I went to Caltech, another school that has no sympathy for those who can't keep up. The 4 year graduation rate at the time was only 77% (compared to 86% for Harvard) and 6 year rate was only 88% (compared to 98% for Harvard). This notoriously cost them the #1 position on the US News and World Report rankings after the weighting function was adjusted to put more emphasis on graduation rates. This practice certainly harms many students who were at the top of their high school classes, would have been at the top of their classes at other great universities, but struggled at Caltech. But on the flip side, this is a necessary consequence of having credibly high expectations, which are in turn critical for motivating educational achievement. I don't expect US News to quantify this nuance, but it's surely recognizeable, no?


Wanda said...

"no sympathy for those who can't keep up"
I would argue that Caltech had incredible sympathy for its students. People who were in trouble got tons of second chances to come back. If you were sick or had difficult circumstances and told the administration, they would intervene and extend deadlines, etc. to give you a chance. I saw this happen over and over again with different people and thought it was normal.
And academically? I swear, the average score on exams in my phys classes frosh year was like 60-something, but due to the unpredictable and generous curves, people mostly ended up with B's. That is probably poor pedagogy, but it's not "no sympathy for those who can't keep up."
And then I taught in the California State system. It wasn't like that at all. Mom got cancer? Drop out. Homeless for a bit and let some deadlines slide? Fail. There were resources, but there were lines for all of them, and if you didn't know the exact procedure to follow, or that the resource existed at all, the bureaucracy was not kind to you. So many students who could have done well under different circumstances. Remember that in these kinds of public schools, the dropout rate is well over Caltech's, and I would argue that it only has somewhat to do with the academic quality of the students.
So, I would argue that with Caltech, expectations matter, but in a different way. Administrators at Caltech believed that Caltech students were smart, and if their grades really didn't show it, it was because of some defect in their circumstances. The system at some other schools sort of assumes the opposite.

Vera said...

Completely true :)

Tom Grey said...

(First time here from MR; tho already commented on earlier posts).
Stanford also is good for keeping folks in class, and having help to help them get better grades = learn more.

But the learning more was still required, and still tough to do, many many times.

The importance of expectations carries forward into effort -- if you think your extra effort will be wasted, it's easy to not do the extra. If you think it will help, you're more likely to do the effort. This is true of study in general.

Many seem to think that having more fun is more important than doing more studying and getting better grades. I used to think this was not quite right, but I think for most college students that is correct, within the range of graduating -- getting an "A" instead of a "B" may be worth it, but "B" or "C" difference not so much, as long as you still can graduate. Only the first job you get out of college will care much about your GPA ... or your grad school...

David Pinto said...

My daughter's high school orchestra was like this. The conductor insisted on playing difficult music, and the musicians responded. They sometimes played at judged events, and would rank with performing arts high schools.

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