There are good reasons to assume that teachers’ beliefs and expectations can influence student success—an idea that has been embraced by parents, students, teachers, and policymakers. During graduation season each year, proud valedictorians thank the nurturing adults in their lives for pushing them to do their best. President George W. Bush famously criticized the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in support of his education-reform agenda. More recently, 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples declared, “You have to ignore it when a child says, ‘I don’t want to,’ because what they’re really saying is, ‘I don’t think I can and I need you to believe in me until I can believe in myself.’”
However, despite abundant anecdotes and theories suggesting a causal effect of teachers’ expectations on student outcomes, documenting its presence and size has been challenging. The reason is simple: positive correlations between what teachers expect and what students ultimately accomplish might simply result from teachers being skilled observers. In practice, distinguishing between accurate and biased expectations is difficult, because both teacher expectations and student outcomes are likely influenced by factors that researchers are unable to observe. Anecdotally, we believe that teachers’ expectations are important. But just how important might they be? And could differences in teachers’ expectations of white students and black students help to explain gaps in key outcomes such as college enrollment and completion?