Christie Baird, Nancy Pavelsky, Barbara Savage and Ken Valburg

Questions for reflection:

  1. What are the most significant factors that lead to low academic achievement?
  2. How do perceptions and expectations affect student achievement?
  3. Are there differences in student effort, expectations and persistence that relate to diversity?
  4. What can schools do differently to stimulate positive changes in achievement?
  5. What is the leadership role for increasing student achievement?


Of the many challenges facing school leaders today, probably no issue is more frustrating and complex than low student achievement. Every dedicated teacher, counselor and administrator wants all students to learn and achieve at their highest possible level. Yet some students just don't reach their potential. What must school leaders understand about the barriers to academic achievement for some students? What educational changes can we make to remove those barriers? This summary will discuss current research addressing issues about student underachievement as a resource to help us meet the challenge.

Significant factors that lead to low academic achievement

The first factor which creates barriers to student achievement is student attitudes and beliefs. Students with low expectations for themselves become frustrated and give poor effort, a cycle called failure syndrome (Brophy, 1998). Students' lack of confidence in their own ability to learn and to be successful as well as their disengagement, or lack of connection with the learning leads to low achievement (Arroyo, Rhoad and Drew, 1999). Lack of self-efficacy, one's own belief that he or she has the power to achieve, also produces poor achievement. (Brown, 1999).

Teacher expectations and beliefs are the second factor that can affect how students achieve. Their unconscious biases and assumptions about students potential have a substantial effect on performance, as low expectation students are given fewer opportunities to perform (Lumsden, 2000). Teachers perceptions and interpretations of student actions are often colored by their initial assessment of the students' potential (Pathways to school Improvement,

The third factor producing barriers for students involves their families. High mobility, low level of parent education and poverty often become insurmountable obstacles for students, resulting in their detachment from the learning process and barriers to their achievement in schools (Arroyo, Rhoad and Drew, 1999).

Finally, the school culture itself can create barriers to student success. If curriculum fails to have meaning and relevance for students those students simply don't try (Arroyo, Rhoad and Drew, 1999). Schools must provide academic opportunities for all students and visibly promote the expectation that all students, regardless of individual circumstances, can succeed.

Perceptions and expectations which affect student achievement

Both experience and research find a relationship between expectation and achievement. Teachers' expectations, unconscious biases, and assumptions about students' potential have a tangible effect on achievement; learning is improved when teachers provide challenge for all students (Lumsden, 1997). Teacher expectations are inferences that teachers make about present and future academic achievement and tend to be self-sustaining, affecting both teacher perception and interpretation of student actions (Bamburg, 2000).

Teachers who use cognition retraining and coping strategies with their students can break the failure syndrome of students who fail from poor effort, low expectations, and frustration (Brophy, 1998). Some efforts at improving achievement, such as ability grouping, retention, and pull-out programs, have backfired because they stigmatize (Costello, 1996).

Once students are categorized as "at-risk," teachers have lower expectations for them (Sixson and Tinzmann, 199?). Teachers tend to have lower expectations for minority and low income students than for other students (Hale-Benson, 1986). Consequently, minority students may not be identified as either gifted or underachieving (ERICDigest, E544). Research on teacher and school effectiveness indicates that higher expectations for student achievement are part of a pattern of differential attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors characterizing teachers and schools that are effective in maximizing their students' learning gains. The effect of negative teacher behaviors is that low-expectation students are given fewer opportunities to interact and participate in classroom activities, and as a result make less effort to get the teacher's attention, gradually withdrawing psychologically from learning in the classroom setting (Smey-Richamn, 1989). Furthermore, culturally driven values influence classroom practices and expectations (Trumbell, Rothsteim-Fish, Greenfield, 2000). Orozco (2000) cites students' belief/expectation as a significant factor related to student achievement. Bamburg (2000) explores the relationship between teacher expectation and student achievement, identifies factors that contribute to low teacher expectation, and suggests changes to remove solve the problem. Although all schools claim to hold high expectations for students, this is often not the case (ERIC, 1997). There is evidence that shows that teacher expectation is a self-fulfilling prophecy that affects student achievement due to teachers creating and acting on expectations (ERIC, 1996).

Differences in student effort, expectations, and persistence as related to diversity

There is a substantial gap between the performance of white, middle class students as compared to that of minority and low-income students. The education of minority students is impacted by the level of education teachers receive in language and multicultural issues. Teachers come with many culturally driven values that shape the instruction in the classroom. If those values are not congruent with the learning styles and needs of minority students, then there is a greater likelihood that minority students may not be able to achieve at the same level of the majority group.

Many factors contribute to differences in student effort, expectations, and persistence. Research indicates there is a substantial gap between the performance of white, middle class students as compared to that of minority and low-income students. Additionally, minority children are more likely to live in poverty (Brandon, 1998). Family beliefs, attitudes, and values towards learning have an impact on student achievement. Finally, teacher expectations and experience in working with diverse students have a tangible effect academic success (Lumsden, 1997).

The education of diverse students is impacted by the level of education teachers possess in language, multicultural, and poverty issues. Teachers come with many culturally driven values that shape the instruction in the classroom. If those values are not congruent with the learning styles and needs of minority students, then there is a greater likelihood that minority students may not be able to achieve at the same level of the majority group.

Teachers' expectations of children play a "significant role in determining how well and how much students learn" (Bamburg, 1994). Teachers have bias towards students based on income, behavior, race, gender, language, and parent education level. In many schools, poor and minority children are often given a "dumbed down" curriculum, rather than being exposed to more challenging course content. Low-income and minority students tend to be overrepresented in special-education, vocational-education, and general-education programs and underrepresented in college-prep tracks.

Although poor and minority students can excel when expectations for them are high and content is challenging, "most schools don't teach all students at the same high level. In fact, we have constructed an educational system so full of inequities that it actually exacerbates the challenges of race and poverty, rather than ameliorates them. Simply put, we take students who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too."

Changes to stimulate positive student achievement

There are numerous, research-based strategies that have been shown to improve student achievement. Much of this research has been catalogued. (See Darling-Hammond,1997; Friedman and Fisher, 1998; Rathvon, 1999; and Backler and Eakin, 1993.) Backler and Eakin review schools that are working to improve student achievement using different strategies; e.g., five that are focusing on higher expectations and six on specific instructional strategies. Rarhvon lists over 45 clearly defined, research-based, instructional interventions to improve academic performance. Friedman and Fisher have 12 chapters, each with extensive bibliography, that explain and document the effectiveness of 12 broad, instructional strategies, e.g., providing contiguity, providing subject matter unifiers. One of the strengths of the Darling-Hammond text is its focus on access for all learners. She documents the practices that have denied and provided access for certain groups of students, e.g., tracking, funding, curriculum choices, and teacher assignment. There is a rich pool of research-based strategies that schools can draw from to increase student achievement. They are not totally adrift with trial and error and untested assumptions as they work to improve their programs. However, often this research is not made available to those who need it most or who are making the instructional decisions.

The Leadership Role

School leaders must help teachers create high-achieving environments where curriculum and instructional techniques combine to support learning for all students. One of the most effective ways to increase motivation and excite for learning is through changing the school's culture (Renchler, 1992). By effectively managing the school's culture, leaders can increase both teacher and student motivation and impact learning gains.

A school leader must be able to clearly articulate a vision of where things need to go and be committed to that vision in order to create change in learning environments (Checkley, 2000). After communicating the vision, the leader must be willing to empower others to carry out the vision. Actions leaders can take include:

One of the most complex tasks of school leadership is effectively managing change. However, with commitment and vision, leaders can create environments where all students learn.


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Bamburg, Jerry D. (2000) NCREL Monograph: Raising Expectations to Improve Student Learning. Pathways Home Page, HYPERLINK

Brandon, Ron. Concentrated Poverty, Education Week on the Web

Checkley, Kathy. The Contemporary Principal: New Skills for a New Age, Education Update, Volume 42, Number 3, May 2000, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Darling-Hammond, Linda. (1997) The Right To Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Friedman, Myles I. and Steven P. Fisher. (1998). Handbook on Effective Strategies: Evidence for Decision-Making. EDIE.

Generating Expectations for Student Achievement (GESA) (2000)

Lake, Robin, J., Paul T. Hill, Lauren O'Toole, and Mary Beth Celio. (1999). Making Standards Work: A Case Study of Washington State. Thomas B. Fordham Foundatrion.

Lumsden, Linda. ERIC Digest 116, Expectations for Students, July 1997 National Education Goals Panel's (NEGP) Case Study Results. (2000)

Rathvon, Natalie. , (1999) Effective School Interventions: Strategies for Enhancing Academic Achievement and Social Competence. The Guilford Press: New York.

Renchler, Ron, ERIC Digest 71, School Leadership and Student Motivation Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA). (2000)