Teacher expectations and morale – the impact on student achievement

Teacher expectations and morale have a role to play in tackling low student performance.

Earlier this month, the OECD released its report Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed. To explore the scale of the problem, the organisation analysed data from the 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests for 15-year-olds.

'Far too many students around the world are trapped in a vicious circle of poor performance and demotivation that leads only to more bad marks and further disengagement from school,' it says.

The OECD defines low performers as those students who score below Level 2 on the PISA tests. The proficiency scales range from Level 1 (lowest) to Level 6 (highest).

The global situation

Looking at the global situation: 23 per cent of students, on average, are low performers in Mathematics across the 64 OECD countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012; and, 18 per cent of students are low performers in Reading and Science.

Countries have had mixed results in trying to tackle the issue, particularly in mathematics, and the issue is not just confined to certain parts of the world. 'All countries that participated in PISA 2012, even those with the highest performance and equity outcomes, have a sizable share of low performers.'

The report highlights socio-economic status of students as probably the most important risk factor, but adds there is no single or universal factor that can account for low performance. In response, it recommends educators and policymakers take a multi-pronged approach, tailored to local needs.

The suggested actions include creating demanding and supportive learning environments at school, providing early intervention support, encouraging parent and community involvement and inspiring students to make the most of education opportunities.

Impact of teacher support, expectations and morale

Discussing the impact of teacher morale, the report says '... students who attend schools where teacher morale is lower are more likely to perform poorly in mathematics, compared with students who attend schools where teacher morale is high ... even after accounting for the socioeconomic status of students and schools.'

Morale relates to a teacher's enthusiasm in carrying out their work, pride in their school, and the extent to which they value academic achievement. The report draws a link between these attributes and the likelihood of teachers making learning tasks and activities more engaging. It suggests these skills, attitudes and behaviours could be emphasised in teacher training and PD. 'Germany, for example, whose share of low performers has shrunk significantly over the past decade, stresses both pedagogical and psychological skills in its teacher education programmes.'

On the importance of setting high expectations, analysis shows students in schools where teachers have low expectations are 1.2 times more likely to perform poorly in mathematics, after accounting for socioeconomic status.

'Schools leaders and teachers sometimes respond to low-performing students by lowering their expectations for these students and even reducing the scope of the curriculum these students are taught.' This kind of response, the report warns, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And, on the topic of teacher support, the OECD says this is particularly important for low-performing students. '...struggling students benefit from teachers who show an interest in every student's learning, help students when they need it, work with students until they understand the course content, and give students an opportunity to express their opinions.'

The analysis showed students attending schools where teachers are more supportive and have better morale are less likely to be low performers.


OECD (2016). Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264250246-en.

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