More than five decades of research have confirmed that the expectations teachers have for their students can profoundly affect student outcomes.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, researchers from the Center for American Progress found that 10th graders whose teachers had high expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students whose teachers held lower expectations.

Teachers and staff may communicate their expectations through explicit policies or comments, or through subtle, sometimes subconscious actions. Whether assigning students to project groups, calling on students in class, or giving one student the chance to do something special, teachers make decisions based on their beliefs about students’ strengths.

These beliefs can lead some students to be excluded from beneficial opportunities. Research shows that even when students of different ethnicities have identical records of achievement in a subject, teachers are likely to perceive white and Asian students as higher achievers than black and Latino students. Studies suggest that teachers who hold low expectations for students from different backgrounds may reduce the quality of instruction they provide to those students, act less friendly, and be less attentive to those students’ needs.

Students from low-income households, students at risk of dropping out, and Black and Latino students are more likely to be influenced by expectations they perceive in school, and over time, teachers’ expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By contrast, high expectations for all students, when accompanied by the supports students need (such as extra help after class, peer tutoring, and help for language learners), create an environment that fosters the energy and can-do spirit that helps students set and achieve life-changing goals.

For example, at Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (YWPA) in Miami, Florida, girls are eligible to enroll in the school as long as they have a C average from elementary school. All are placed in advanced academic classes — the equivalent a gifted program in other middle schools — and told they are headed for a four-year college.

“Right away, we’re always raising the rigor,” says advanced placement coordinator Cecilia Reverte. “So high expectations really work.”

Without enough support this might set off a demoralizing spiral for some students; but at YWPA, the small class sizes and warmly supportive staff create a strong sense of positive momentum. At a recent visit to the College Success Award winning school, administrators expressed their open affection and admiration for their students. “Aren’t these young women amazing?” asked Principal Concepcion Martinez. Reverte piped in: “We’re so proud of our girls.”

At Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton, a charter school based in suburban Denver, the school’s high expectations for its students do not mean that all students are expected to perform and learn at the same pace. In fact, the school attempts to destigmatize the idea of being “held back.” Instead, they emphasize that all students have the capacity to become college-ready, even if it takes some students more time; the school is prepared to support students for as long as they need. “I have such respect for the students that stick with it,” said Jeff Desserich of DSST students who took five or even six years to graduate.

Expecting success

Research has identified some successful strategies for intervention that help teachers project high expectations for all their students. Techniques include consciously reviewing and modifying verbal and nonverbal behaviors towards students that may reflect expectations, creating a warm socioemotional learning environment, and helping students set strong goals. When teachers learned to employ those strategies and others through a supportive intervention program, students in their classes had higher achievement gains than students whose teachers did not participate in the program.

High schools can set students up for postsecondary success by ensuring that all students perceive and internalize high expectations, and receive the support they need to meet them.

This article is part of a series exploring best-practice approaches used by recipients of GreatSchools’ College Success Award. The College Success Award honors public high schools in nine states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more best practices here.