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The Pygmalion Effect: Does Calling It a "Failing School" Make It One?

There's been an incredible spike in the prevalence of the term “failing school”—and that label itself could be hurting our education system.

Nowadays it's pretty common to hear talk about “failing schools.” We rarely pause to consider, however, that that label might suggest the students and teachers inside the building are failures themselves. And our casual use of the term could have pretty dangerous consequences.

There's been an incredible spike in the prevalence of the term “failing school.” Education historian Diane Ravitch blogged on Tuesday about a former student, Kevin Kosar, who took data from “publications digitized by Google and classified by Google as ‘books’” and created graphs illustrating the rise in the use of the terms “failing school” and “failing schools” over the last 20 years.

You'll notice the marked increase in our description of schools as failing starting at around 1995. Here's the chart for "failing school":

And for "failing schools":

Here's the problem: If someone believes you're smart and successful, they're going to treat you that way. And, if you're treated like you're smart and successful, then you're more likely to behave that way. Similarly, our labeling of schools as failures can have the opposite effect. It suggests the teachers and students inside are deficient. It defines the institution as one in decline.

There's a wealth of psychological data that suggests people live up (or down) to the expectations of others, even when those expectations are communicated in subtle ways. It's called the Pygmalion effect, and it has been well documented. A famous 1965 Harvard Study, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” confirmed that the beliefs teachers have about their students matter. When teachers in the study saw students as failures, sure enough, those kids were more likely to fail. It's not a stretch to think that the same consequence could result from the labeling of schools.

Kosnar writes that he's not sure why there's such a sudden spike—“Did it originate with academics? Local or national journalists? State or federal policymakers?” he wonders. Regardless of how the term gained currency, when we think about its increased use—and keep in mind these graphs merely measure books, not blogs, magazines, Waiting for Superman, or statements from Arne Duncan—it's reasonable to worry that that prevalence makes failure more likely.

Of course, if a school isn't serving the academic needs of its students, we shouldn't deny reality. But, as Kosnar points out, language is power. Maybe we need a moratorium on describing schools as failing. I don't know exactly what a good replacement would be—calling a school "academically challenged" sounds like a joke—but picking a term that doesn't implicitly doom teachers and students isn't a matter of hypersensitive political correctness; it's a matter of making the institutions less likely to fail.

photo (cc) via The Grio

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