Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Education and the importance of students’ worldview

I recently read and discussed with students two very interesting articles from the Atlantic that I think are strongly related to educational outcomes. The first details a fairly well-known phenomenon – the fact that kids who believe they are bad at math, or more generally that intelligence is inherent and not a product of hard work, tend to fall between peers with similar skills who believe that through hard work they can improve their math and their intelligence generally. The second is also a fairly believable phenomenon – the fact that among underprivileged children, having two parents correlates educational achievement and economic mobility.

But the most interesting things about these articles are not in the headlines. The first for me is that it seems that the belief that hard work can really increase academic performance correlates with hard work actually having that effect. I’m less concerned with genetic determinism, however, than with socio-economic determinism. Educators often point out that the fact that half of all public school students are living in or near poverty is a huge factor in the apparent failures of the US public school system. This is undoubtedly, but unevenly, true. Smith and Kimball’s arguments about math lead to a disconcerting possibility -if students living in poverty or difficult family situations believe they are therefore destined to fail at school, this is far more likely to be true for them. Most educators agree that convincing students that they can be successful is key to helping them achieve success. But the danger always exists that in rightly pointing out the challenges students face, we may be contributing to a culture that by and large reinforces this fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy.

What does this have to do with two parent households? Very little, though I think again part of the reason is that there is an assumption that children of single parents will be more likely to fail, and students themselves internalize this belief. The most interesting tidbit there is an almost trivial fact at first glance: the city in the United States with the highest economic mobility for poor children is not a blue state metropolis with high investment into projects for low income children, but Salt Lake City (This is not altogether surprising, in that Utah itself has tended to avoid the many of the socio-economic problems that have befallen other Red states). While the authors of the article claim this as a victory for intact families, the significance I think is deeper – there is a degree to which the beliefs and worldview of both students and parents influence student achievement even beyond the documented socio-economic metrics social scientists have already identified.

All this unfortunately lacks a straightforward political or educational solution, but it serves as reminder of how the education system is constrained by and connected to a wider culture that cumulatively has an enormous impact on student performance.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

Subscribe to our posts

About the author

The Polish Wolf


Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply to NamelessRange Cancel reply

Please enter an e-mail address

  • Wolf, your conclusion is spot on, but I do not share your fatalism. Please consider that there is a cognitive dissonance between the agnostic/atheist worldview embraced by public education and any belief in a higher justice, and direction who powerfully and personally supports and lifts students out of any predetermined belief in a self fulfilling prophecy of failure.

    Your case in point, Salt Lake City, is a place where a specific religious world view permeates the culture, and civilization. Placed very conveniently next to every high school in Salt Lake city sits a Mormon “seminary” to teach their faith. Students are released from classes during prime school hours to be taught this faith in a class lasting several years. The public schools thus accommodate this positive worldview, and students are lifted beyond the deterministic fatal worldview imposed by the public system.

    The solution is simple: Foster and promote a practical and voluntary release time program for the religious education of high school students. In the perfect world this would be done in high school classrooms by religious professionals, but this is illegal under current laws. Laws can be changed.

    Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
    (Matthew 19:14 ESV)

    • “Please consider that there is a cognitive dissonance between the agnostic/atheist worldview embraced by public education and any belief in a higher justice”

      That’s a false premise Rev, and even if it were true the conclusion wouldn’t follow.

      Public education tries to be secular, not atheistic/agnostic. Teachers don’t claim the existence or non-existence of a disembodied cosmic mind in public schools, and they shouldn’t. Leaving religion out of public schools isn’t the same as saying religion is bad or its tenets are false. Thus, the premise is false.

      The conclusion doesn’t follow because atheism is a lack of belief in a disembodied cosmic mind, agnostism the claim that knowledge pertaining to said disembodied cosmic mind is unattainable. It has nothing to do with “higher justice”. If by higher justice you mean objective morality, one could be an atheist but still adhere to moral realism, or any other branch of platonism. If by “higher justice” you mean heaven and hell, then you run into all sorts of problems with whether the criteria for admittance is itself just and to whether that criteria is arbitrary or circular, or, perhaps more devastating, whether or not those places even exist.

      But hey, if we are going to propose a voluntary release program for students to get their religious time in, can mine be released to study metaphysical naturalism? How bout rastafarianism, or better yet, pastafarianism? It becomes a slippery slope.

      No. I think it better that religion stay at home. I went to church school twice during the week in the evenings and on Sundays. Religion isn’t going to be the great equalizer. Which is clear when countries with cultures and education systems far more secular than our own seem to be doing better at educating their children more equitably.

      • I agree with you, Nameless, on principle, but not on the specifics.

        ” Religion isn’t going to be the great equalizer. Which is clear when countries with cultures and education systems far more secular than our own seem to be doing better at educating their children more equitably.”

        France is certainly a very secular school system, but also a notoriously inflexible one and not necessarily a model to be imitated. Germany, on the other hand, has a highly efficient school system producing a highly equitable society, and they do continue to teach religion in school and support churches with taxes. I don’t believe that this is a viable option in the US, but it doesn’t mean that secularism is inherently a better system for organizing a school. Similarly, while I agree that absolute morality can be postulated absent a religious belief, any philosophy or ideology embracing an absolute morality quickly comes to resemble religion in all but metaphysics, with all the pros and cons inherent to it.

        Which is why I think public school is not the place to teach absolute morals or values, even though we see that certain values have an enormous impact on society. In short, like with poverty and drugs and a variety of other issues, schools can be only part of the solution. And, Rev. Gordish, this is where religion comes in. I don’t know to what extent school policies designed to foster religion is necessary, legal, or advisable, but what does seem clear is that neither most religious communities nor non-religious parents and groups have succeeded in shaping the worldviews of their younger adherents in a way that promotes individual success and mobility to the extent that the LDS church, and, I think, civil society in many other countries, has. I don’t think schools or government can solve that problem, but I know schools would benefit from its solution.

        • Speaking for my own religion (not mormanism), religious theology is very complicated, and take many hours of education. When the best working hours for students are taken up by their public education and churches are left with free time, and in competition with sports, it is very difficult to teach the faith. Try teaching any of your classes in an hour and a half a week, after school hours. The monopolizing of students time by schools has been decimating to sophisticated historical christianity.

          When I had 7th and 8th graders for 45 minutes in the first hours of the day and four days a week, the results were much more positive. But that was in a private school.

          Education of the young is the key to passing on the faith, and our public schools have been more successful in passing on their faith than we have been, and so we see the seeds sown coming to fruit. Broken marriages, neglected children, narcissism, I could go on and on.

              • I spent 12 years in Catholic schools and can attest to the deep indoctrination of youth. It took me 38 years of my life to dispense with devils and sun gods, saints, hell, angels, Limbo and Purgatory. They invaded my head and took control of my mind. I know that many people who are religious and also good people, but I do not forgive them for depriving me of my right to choose.

                My dad to his dying day did not understand how I could turn my back on his faith, or why he had no right to invade me head.

                • Martin Luther grew up with the same demons, but they drove him into the scriptures where he read, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
                  (Romans 3:21–22 ESV)

                  His conclusions were different than yours and the rest is history.

              • oh, so that’s where we start indoctrinating leftists, in head start. I’m pissed, Rev, because our indoctrination doesn’t seem to be working. we seem to be producing parrots of consumerism instead.

                • The seeds you sow, you reap. Start by teaching that there is only the material, exclude all other possibilities from your education. Then as they learn this lesson well teach them that covetousness is a virtue. How on earth would they be anything else but material consumers?

                  Jesus said,
                  “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
                  (Luke 12:15 ESV)

      • You say, ” Leaving religion out of public schools isn’t the same as saying religion is bad or its tenets are false.”

        You are correct, but leaving religion out of ones epistemology is saying that religion is irrelevant, and not a necessary part of a well rounded education.

    • Mormonism? Really, Rev? Is that a religion in your view? Guy puts his SEER stones in a hat, and starts translating (making up) an ancient language unknown to all the worlds’ scholars? ‘Bout how Jesus was here at one time? Wow. Sounds like YOU got kind of a low bar for what a religion is there, dude! I’m guessin’ that you DON’T even know what Mormonism is all about. But then again, I’m SURE you don’t. So, in an effort to show just what a great “religion” Mormonism is, would you mind STATING for us the last time you heard a great man quote the Book of Mormon! You know, like everyone does with the Bible, for surely if Mormonism is a legitimate religion, SOME one along the way would have quoted it, just like they do the Koran or the Bhagavad-Gita! WHERE is Mormonism’s masterpiece of devotional literature? And if they have none, WHAT are the little cult members actually LEARNING in the little madrassas?

      Have a go at it, Revvy. I’ll wait, for I have even more questions for our resident sky pilot!

      • This is what we expect from a religion, Rev, NOT seer stones in a charlatan’s hat! He pull SUMTHIN’ outta that hat, AND his ass!

        ” I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

        J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) American physicist, known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”

        The first nuclear test, perversely called Trinity.
        J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the USA’s World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons. This quote is often attributed to Oppenheimer on the occasion of the first successful nuclear test, the Trinity test in New Mexico in 1945, after which USA President Truman authorized the atomic bombings of the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing well over 200,000 men, women and children. It is not clear whether Oppenheimer used these words at the time of the test or at a later date, but in fact he was recalling and translating the words of Vishnu in the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita.

      • Nameless,

        Legitimizing the religious beliefs of public students is a slippery slope? Why not have a metaphysical naturalist teach a class. That would be better than the lack of the metaphysical in public education. This is a free country, if someone has the time and talent to give kids some sort of theological, philosophical, and ethical education on their dime, and with voluntary attendance it is bound to be a boon to thought, freedom, and meaning for those whose parents have failed them.

        Would oppose any introduction of intelligent design theory taught because it is nothing more than teaching creationism?

        • I really wouldn’t be opposed to children learning about religion from anthropologists or from a sociological viewpoint. But having a “religious professional” teach religion would be nothing more than apologetics, for obvious reasons. I would feel the same way about any metaphysical viewpoints being taught as fact in a publc education setting, whether it would be metaphysical naturalism, pantheism, or theism. Big ontological conclusions are outside the purview of our epistemic abilities, and are incredibly divisive, and are difficult for young minds to be open about. Especially when specific ones have been drilled as fact into their heads since their thoughts could be transferred into language.

          I disagree with Polish Wolf though, that secular education systems are not inherently better than religious ones. If an educational system is publicly funded, it IS inherently better that it be secular, for the same reasons a secular government is superior to one that adheres to a specific religion.

          Of course I would oppose teaching I.D. in a public education setting. In the words of Ken Miller, one of America’s leading biologists as well as a theist:

          “‘Intelligent Design,’ the relabeled, repackaged form of American creationism, has always had a problem. It just can’t seem to produce any evidence.”

      • If the students of the school are being elevated out of poverty, and learning better, what is so offensive with moon stones? You are not interested in improving education, just keeping out any religious or moral thought from public education even if it is legal. (see this states release time law)

        • “You are not interested in improving education, just keeping out any religious or moral thought from public education even if it is legal. (see this states release time law)”.

          Absolutely untrue, Rev. There is NO moral thought that comes from religion, for ALL religion is of human origin. It all comes from the intellect, whether you like that or not. Now, do I think that there is great wisdom in the Bible? Of course there is, but no more than comes from Shakespeare, Cervantes, or ANY great philosopher or writer.

          • Nice opinion Larry. Based of course on the assumption that you are indeed omniscient ;^)

            “It all comes from the intellect, whether you like that or not. ”

            Here you are correct, but the intellect is not human, but divine!

        • “If the students of the school are being elevated out of poverty, and learning better, what is so offensive with moon stones? ”

          We agree here. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of what the LDS church teaches kids, but I cannot deny that whatever it is makes them live longer, frequently happier, and apparently more economically mobile lives.

        • Who believes that crap, rezzy? Not me. You see, dude, I poke fun at ALL religions! Or did you miss that? It’s just that the Morons are particularly lacking in ANY real religious significance. Or maybe YOU’D like to be the first to take a whack at it. NAME one famous quote from the Book of Moron. Can you do it? I can’t. Or name ONE great Moron thinker that influenced the world. I rest my case AGAIN! Come back when you got sumthin’, dude. Until then, I’ll poke fun at the Morons all day long, for they are nuts and dangerous. AND a sordid cult!

          • Larry, I don’t know if you’re truly an agnostic, or an athiest, or just trolling for an argument.

            If you actually take the time to look around at this world we live in, you won’t disagree that we have a creator.

            Walking through the valleys, you might come upon a prefectly laid out wild rasberry patch. Is your first thought, that “Wow, there’s about a 2,000,000 to 1 chance of this happening in nature !” or do you realize that there’s a gardener at work ? A Diety, or a longshot ?

            And when the mother black bear is out with her yearling cub, looking to put some fat on for winter, is it just coincidence that the berry patch is there waiting, or is there a zookeeper making sure of it ? A Diety, or a long shot ?

            If you look at the story of Jesus Christ, who can undeniably be called the most influential man in world history, is there anything wrong with his messages of peace, love, and understanding ?

            I can understand attacking or ridiculing the way some religions have stretched or perverted Christs message, but not the true word.

  • I’ve graduated 3 kids from Billings Senior High, with one still to graduate, and so far my kids are an Engineer, a Licensed Beautician, a second-year Engineering stident at Mt. Tech, and an aspiring school teacher.

    I’ve gotten to know a lot of their peers and families over the last two decades, and I’ve learned a few truths that go with your posts;

    (1) The kids that did well, had a parent, or parent(s) that took an interest in their education, actually talking to teachers, and making sure homework was done, etc.

    (2) The kids raised by Grandparents, with parents divorced, jailed, or who were practicioners of modern chemistry, and never around, did consistently poorer than the other kids.

    (3) Kids with divorced, separated, and re-married parents often don’t have college opportunities, because let’s face it, college is a sacrifice for both students and parents, and often a Step-Mom, or Step-Dad doesn’t have the same committment to a child. They’d do it for ‘Their’ kid, but not somebody elses kid. My step-mother wouldn’t commit to a parents plus loan on our behalf, but did so for my half-brother, who was hers.

  • The effect of culture is undeniable. You hear that old saw about a meritocracy, i.e., getting ahead by dint of your own effort. These non-critical thinking types go off in high dungeon when some points out that no one really climbs the ladder of success alone. Most of us live in communities, attend public schools, drive around on public roads, have parents or grandparents on social security and Medicare. Despite the noisy advocacy coming from the pull-yersef-up-from-th-bootstraps crowd, you are, indeed, the product of others’ expectations and investment. There’s no justice and precious little sense in that selection process because picking winners out of the ant pile is contrary to how anthills work.

  • To your overall point PW, I think it would be correlation fallacy to point to one city, like Salt Lake, and assume their worldview beliefs are working to create economic mobility for poor children, any more than it would be to assume their worldview leads them to have the highest rates of depression in the country. That’s not meant to be a dig against the LDS faith.

    The point about self-fulfilling prophecies is fascinating, and is further supported when we consider this study by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler. In their study they found that participants who had their belief in free will diminished, by telling them prior to taking a test that science had found determinism to be wholly true, were more likely to cheat in a math test than individuals who were told science had verified the existence of free will. It’s pretty crazy.

    • Wow thanks for the study – I had been discussing that exact thing with my wife – the effect of determinism on individual choices, but I had no evidence!

      As to Utah – there is pretty solid evidence that Mormonism changes societal outcomes. Life expectancy, economic mobility, and many other human development metrics are much higher in Utah than in other states with typically Republican social policies and otherwise similar demographics.

      But I think I jumped the gun on assigning the majority of the responsibility to religion. I think one way the LDS church achieves much of its success is by fostering connections between youth and adults. Religion is one way to do that, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Making young people feel engaged in and accountable to the wider community, ensuring that they have adults who care about them and who they trust, is in my opinion the key to it all. I think that’s probably why the seminaries and Mormon churches are so successful, why two parent households achieve better outcomes, etc.

      And I guess I have to take back some of my earlier fatalism – introducing youth into the community as a whole is something our society has not been successful at. Schools can be part of that and I think there’s a variety of programs that can help, although it will take very different strategies than the ones being pursued now, and the effort needs to be societal, not limited to schools.

          • BTW, just WHAT constitutes a “religion” in your mind? A charlatan puttin’ SEER stones in a hat for revelations? A guy who THEN designed an entire “religion” based on Masonic rituals? Wow. You’re easy, dude. Way too easy.

            Again, just tell me ’bout that ONE time a public speaker quoted the Book of Moron! Just one. It’s a corporation founded by a pedophile! But you like that! And that’s kinda sad. No, REAL sad.

        • I do, Larry. Here’s the thing- results don’t lie. My view on Mormonism is largely the same as Bill Cosby’s view on the Nation of Islam – the things they believe are absurd. but at this point I’m also pretty thrilled at anything that makes kids less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to get pregnant, and more likely to go to college. Would I prefer they got there through rationality instead of belief in Mormonism? Perhaps. I’d certainly like to see them get there without falling into homophobia and general social conservatism. But as weird as I find their faith and as disconcerting as I find their organization, from an educational standpoint I can’t argue with their results.

          BUT, as I said, I don’t think it’s just a matter of religion. It’s a matter of maintaining the connection between youth and community. What our society lacks is a real initiation into the adult world – there’s just far too much bitterness, judgement. and distrust between ‘youth’ culture and culture in general. That’s what needs to break down, and I think the best way for that to happen is through closer connections between individual teenagers and adults.

Latest PostCast

Support Our Work!

Subscribe Via E-mail


Which Democratic Candidate for Governor Do You Support Today?

Send this to a friend