The 1965 experiment, “Pygmalion in the classroom,” was conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson to determine one educational reality: to what extent the teacher’s expectations of student progress actually encourages intellectual development. To that end, the authors informed the teachers at the Oak School that such development is verified by the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition, a fictitious test presented in order to affirm teachers’ beliefs in gender and minority status as determining learning progress. The authors then employed control and experimental groups, the latter composed of those elementary school children to whom teacher expectancy was encouraged, as there were determinants based on fast, middle, and slow track placement.
Importantly, the focus was on how girls and Mexican American children, the minority group at the school, developed in contrast to boys and the mainstream student body population. The findings supported that the “special” children, particularly in the first and second grades, performed at levels directly related to teachers’ expectations, and favorably so. In later grades, it also held that positive expectation led to superior IQ ratios and learning, but this leveled out in both groups studied. Consequently, the authors find that younger and “special” children benefit more from expressions of higher expectancy from teachers. There were as well results varying in how girls and boys gained in verbal and reasoning IQ skills, but with the emphasis on all groups advantaged by positive expectation.
There can be no sense of the implications of this study without assessing it in its historical context. More exactly, and as the authors made efforts to present the teachers with images of what Mexican American children “look like,” it is clear that the entire approach is suspect by virtue of the bias permissible at the time. The authors made a point of stressing these children as distinctly foreign, and that the teachers accepted the overt minority assessments of them goes to an actual reinforcement of bias as the foundation of how the teachers would express expectations of success. The same is true of the girls, and the authors’ emphasis on “lady” teachers as dominant in the Oak School further invalidates the core of the study. What emerges are implications dramatically weakening any actual research. While the study was conducted with strict parameters, it is far more important that the framework itself was constructed by subjective “expectations” of bias as likely existing in the teachers, which in turn points to a biased basis for the study. In essence, the work is only a trajectory created by an approach inherently invalid in academic terms.
If there is value here, then, it lies in how research may reflect invalid premises and even promote them. Interestingly, the authors deny any expectation themselves: “We are interested in differences among the tracks in the degree of expectancy advantage than may be found, but we hardly know what to expect” (Rosenthal, Jacobson, 1968, p. 16), when the work itself was generated to affirm sexist and racist thinking. That is, the guiding idea seems to be that girls and minorities only lack encouragement, which ignores actual ability levels and consequently perpetuates bias. To determine IQ levels from this and reach conclusions going to actual learning potential is irrational; again, the study only relies on the marginalization it seeks to investigate. This being the case, it is then arguable that the greater value of Rosenthal’s and Jacobson’s experiment lies in how researchers must carefully assess how and why they conduct any study, particularly when children, gender, and minority status are involved. The authors here may well have believed they were proceeding ethically, but they were in fact merely depending upon the prevailing and biased perceptions of the time. Lastly, perhaps the largest issue with the authors’ work was the noted and grossly unethical categorization of the Mexican American children as “extremely” Mexican, which certainly must have added to marginalized perceptions in the teachers.