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Research on the factors for school success

young boy doing homework

Standards and expectations

Sandra L. Christenson, Ph.D, Professor — College of Education and Human Development; and Cathryn Peterson, Teacher — Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale, MN

Revised June 2013 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.

Standards and expectations

Standards and expectations refer to the level of expected performance held by key adults for youth. Student success in school is facilitated when parents and teachers clearly state expectations for student performance, set specific goals and standards for desired behavior and performance, discuss expectations with youth, emphasize children's effort when completing tasks, and ensure youth understand the consequences for not meeting expectations.

What Do We Know?

Selected Research Findings

Academic achievement is positively correlated with realistic, high parent expectations for children's school performance (Amato & Ochiltree, 1986). For example, Entwisle and Hayduk (1988) found that parents' estimates of their children's ability had long-term effects on achievement. Scott-Jones (1984) found that realistic and accurate parent expectations (i.e., those close to the child's actual performance) were associated with children's superior performance on cognitive tasks.

Fan and Chen (1999) found a medium effect size for parent involvement on student achievement; the effect size was greater for general achievement measures than for grades and test scores in a specific subject. They also noted that some forms of parent involvement have a more noticeable effect on achievement. Parents’ aspirations and expectations, especially for adolescents, had the strongest relationship with achievement. Although parents’ supervision of youth at home had the weakest effect, it was not considered unimportant. Rather the researchers argued that parents impose more controls when students are not doing well in school.

Parent expectations may have an indirect effect on academic performance through the impact on parent behaviors such as contact with the school and positive reinforcement of schoolwork and performance (Seginer, 1986). Clark (1983) demonstrated that both parents' attitudes about schoolwork and behavior in supporting their adolescents' schoolwork were family influences that differentiated low- and high-achieving high school students who were African-American and poor.

Children's personal beliefs and expectations about their achievement are often highly correlated with those held by their parents (Johnson, Brookover, & Farrell, 1989; Wigfield, 1983). In one study, children's beliefs were more directly related to children's own expectations than the children's past performances (Parsons, Adler, Karzala, & Meece, 1982).

The degree to which parents hold expectations or how parents communicate their expectations to children has been found to differ as a function of social strata and parental occupation. Cohen (1987) showed that "white collar" parents tend to influence their children's achievement through stated expectations and modeling, while "blue collar" parents tend to influence children through stated expectations only. While parents' education-related beliefs were significantly associated with their achievement-fostering behaviors in the home, for low-income African-American third and fourth graders, parent beliefs and expectations were more strongly linked to child achievement in reading and math than were parents reported instruction in the home (Halle, Kurtz-Costes, & Mahoney, 1997). There is some evidence for differences in the types of parent expectations related to school and career. Scott-Jones (1987) found that parents of low-achieving, low-income African-American children emphasized good behavior more than learning. Interestingly, they held high career aspirations for their children, even when they were in early elementary grades (e.g., doctor, lawyer, nurse). Parents of higher-achieving children emphasized learning more than behavior, and indicated they wanted their children to achieve their personal career goals.

Parent expectations are influenced by the reasons parents ascribe for their children's performance in school. In general, the use of effort attributions (i.e., "you did well because you tried hard and practiced a lot") to explain school performance is strongly related to positive achievement outcomes (Stevenson & Lee, 1990).

In their study of family-based expectations for Caucasian, Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic adolescents, Steinberg, Dornbusch, and Brown (1992) found strong ethnic and cultural differences related to students' beliefs about the consequences of negative school failure. Asian-American students overwhelmingly believed a bad education would have negative effects on finding a good job, and African-American and Hispanic students predicted few negative consequences of a bad education. Although students across all ethnic groups reported that their parents valued education, African-American and Hispanic students "devoted less time to homework, perceived their parents as having lower standards, and were less likely to believe academic success comes from working hard" (pp.726). The researchers concluded that high parental expectations are necessary but not sufficient conditions for school performance. Expectations for success and negative consequences of failure must be translated into achievement-related action.

It has also been shown that: (a) parental knowledge of children's current schoolwork and school activities affects parents' ability to set realistic expectations for children's performance (Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez, & Bloom, 1993), (b) parent expectations of youth for post-secondary outcomes is associated positively with academic performance (Clark, 1993; Eagle, 1989); (c) parent expectations for children to read and to learn math and to request verbal responses from their children are associated with better academic performance (Hess & Holloway, 1984); (d) parents' verbal expectations for continued achievement and urging children to work hard in school (i.e., defined as press for achievement) are strongly related to student achievement (Clark, 1988; Marjoribanks, 1979); and (e) parent expectations for deferral of immediate gratification to achieve long range goals are correlated with more successful school outcomes (Walberg, 1984).

In a seminal, nationwide study completed for the U.S. Department of Education, McDill, Rigsby, and Meyers (1969) demonstrated that the degree of parental and community interest in quality education was a critical factor in explaining the impact of the high school environment on the achievement and educational aspirations of students. Data from over 20,000 students, from diverse backgrounds, in 20 public schools, in eight states revealed that parent and community involvement had a substantial, significant effect on the math achievement and educational aspirations of students even when controlling for ability and family educational background.

The importance of parental attitudes and expectations for adolescents across four ethnic groups: African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Whites has been demonstrated. Using NELS data, 12 variables (background — gender, SES, prior achievement; school-related aspects of parental involvement — parental involvement, communication, and expectations; students’ perceptions — of parental involvement, communication, and expectations; and student variables — time spent on homework, self-concept, and academic expectations) were examined to account for achievement differences in 14 year olds in grades 6 or 9. The total model accounted for 74-78% of variance in achievement, regardless of ethnic and cultural background. Students’ prior achievement was the best predictor followed by parental attitudes and expectations and student perception of parental expectations for the four ethnic groups (Patrikakou, 1997).

The importance of parental attitudes and expectations for adolescents with learning disabilities has been demonstrated. Students’ prior achievement had the strongest direct effect on achievement; however, student expectations for academic achievement, which are mediated by perception of parental expectations and parental expectations, were a strong predictor of achievement (Patrikakou, 1996).

Family expectations and supervision (e.g., priority of schoolwork over TV and recreation, expectations for performance, correct use of language, monitoring of time, parental knowledge about child progress) have been identified as one pattern of family life that contributes to a child’s ability to learn in school. These family practices create positive habits of learning for students; the habits of learning enhance teachers’ effectiveness. Parents set standards for their children, and these standards determine what children view as important. The internalization of these parental values may motivate students to pursue the same goals that are valued by teachers at school (Wentzel, 1997). Setting expectations is considered a challenge for parents; however, focusing on the child’s attitudes toward school and study habits rather than only grades, especially for adolescents, is beneficial (Redding, 2000). With respect to enhancing achievement motivation for adolescents, it is critical to move beyond grades because some students can do the work with little effort and others work very hard and obtain a lower grade; student effort must be included (Bempechat, 2000).

Family support and involvement are associated with student engagement. Statistically significant home correlates of school completion include the presence of study aids, high educational expectations and aspirations, and parental monitoring and participation (Rumberger, 1995).

Clear communication of high teacher expectations for student performance is positively associated with better academic outcomes for regular and special education students (Brophy & Good, 1970; 1986; Kagan, 1992). Research has shown that clearly stated teacher expectations and specific teacher behaviors, such as providing opportunity for all students to respond and matching the level and type of teacher questions to student skill level, are both important for establishing classroom expectations for students.

Kagan (1992) found that student performance is higher in classrooms where teacher expectations for what the student is to learn (i.e., lesson goal) and what the student is to do (i.e., instructions) are explicitly stated. Similarly, Anderson (1985) concluded that students perform better in classrooms where the instructional goal is clearly communicated because the goal provides directions to the student (Good & Brophy, 1984) and provides the basis for evaluation and mastery (Bloom, 1976). Student ability to understand the assigned task or lesson goal has been demonstrated by Peterson, Swing, Stark, and Waas (1984) to be a better predictor of student achievement than classroom observers' ratings of students' time-on-task behavior.

The students' socioeconomic (SES) background seems to be a factor to consider when communicating and reinforcing standards and expectations. Teachers in classrooms with students of high SES backgrounds made gains when they challenged their students and communicated high expectations. These teachers occasionally provided students with symbolic rewards for positive behavior and criticism for inappropriate behaviors. On the other hand, teachers in classrooms with low SES students motivated their students with gentle praise and encouragement and used symbolic rewards (Brophy & Good, 1986).

Research has demonstrated that student achievement is improved when instructors hold high expectations for all students, regardless of student achievement level. In a major California intervention research project, teachers from 30 school districts implemented 15 teaching practices aimed at providing low achievers with greater opportunity to respond, clearer articulation of lesson goals and objectives, and more specific feedback. Students in the treatment classes showed statistically significant achievement gains over their low achieving peers in control classes. In addition to academic gains, a significant reduction in absenteeism and discipline referrals for the treatment classes was found (Kerman, 1982).

Fuchs, Fuchs, and Deno (1985) found that goal ambitiousness, not goal mastery, was associated positively with student achievement for special education students with emotional/behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and mental retardation. They concluded that teachers need to establish relatively ambitious expectations to stimulate greater achievement and to reconceptualize how and why they use these goals. In a comprehensive school-wide, school reform program, Levin (1987) has demonstrated achievement gains for low achievers with the use of an accelerated curriculum.

Eccles and colleagues (1993) found that levels of teacher self-efficacy affected student performance. Students who in seventh grade had math teachers who demonstrated low levels of self-efficacy, ended seventh grade with lower expectations for themselves in math, lower perceptions of their performance in math, and felt that math was more difficult, when compared to students who experienced a change from low to high efficacy teachers, or experienced no change in teacher efficacy. Likewise, students who moved from teachers offering low levels of support, to teachers offering higher levels of support, demonstrated a congruent change in the value that they attached to math. Overall, studies of successful middle schools/junior highs have pointed toward the influence of developmentally appropriate and positive learning environments in student achievement. These schools are characterized by higher teacher efficacy, opportunity for meaningful student participation in classroom decisions, and positive teacher-student relationships. It seems that students in schools where these variables are present, experience less decline in intrinsic motivation and there is less student misconduct.

Studies have found that affluent neighbors may have a negative impact on youth from disadvantaged families. The youth from the more affluent families may set academic standards that are so high that they result in discouragement for low income youth. In addition, in communities where 5% or fewer of the workers hold professional or managerial jobs, dropping out of high school is likely to occur for both Black and White students (Duncan, 1994).

Focus Group Comments

How Do We Do This?

At Home

Expectations and Accountability

Values Communicated

Encouragement and Support

In School

Within Community


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