I’m reading The Smartest Kids in the World right now and loving it. One great section explores how over just a few years Poland surpassed the US on the gold standard international academic achievement test (PISA). The answer researchers found that stood out was simple: high expectations.
What had made the difference in Poland? Of all the changes, one reform had mattered most according to research done by Wisniewski and his colleagues: the delay in tracking. Kids who would have otherwise been transferred to vocational schools cored about 100 points higher than their counterparts who had already been tracked at that point. The expectations had gone up, and these kids had met them.
Before the set of reforms that vaulted Poland to the top 10 worldwide on the PISA tests, students had been sorted early into academic and vocational tracks based on test results from childhood. But after reforms, vocational students weren’t split off from other students until age 16. Meanwhile in the US, so-called ‘gifted’ students have been tracked since elementary school.
So how does tracking early drive such dramatic differences in results? Again, it’s about expectations. In 1964 Robert Rosenthal ran an experiment exploring this. He gave a set of elementary school students an IQ test. After the test, he randomly selected a subset and told their teachers that they had done remarkably well on the test and showed great potential. And what happened? From NPR:
As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.
As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.
“It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal says. “It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day.”
It’s less and less controversial to argue against traditional gifted and talented programs that track students from a young age. So-called “no-excuses” charter schools have started taking high expectations through high school. But few have started to question tracking after high school.
In designing our higher education programs, we’re shifting more and more to focus on those students left out of the traditional higher ed pathways – students tracked out of university by their secondary school performance and exams. We’re asking what would happen if you got rid of tracking altogether, and at any point in a young person’s life, even after they’d missed their shot at university, you gave them strong education and had incredibly high expectations of them. We don’t know yet, but we’re excited to find out.