School Controversies: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Tracking

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  • 0:05 School Controversies
  • 0:38 Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
  • 2:22 The Pygmalion Effect
  • 3:48 Tracking
  • 5:20 Tracking: Benefits
  • 6:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

In this lesson, we define self-fulfilling prophecies and tracking, two controversial elements of education today. We will also discuss the educational advantages and disadvantages of each element.

School Controversies

Education is a social institution that has a huge impact on our society. As such, there are several hot topics when it comes to education and schools. Banned books, sex education, standardized tests, and prayer are just a few examples. The phenomenon of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the common system known as tracking are two controversial educational topics that are relevant to sociology and are the topic of this lesson.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to come true due to the simple fact that it is expected to be true. For example, think about your time in middle school and high school. Did you have a label? Were you considered a 'troublemaker' or a 'class clown?' It's common for teachers to apply labels to students and then expect those students to act accordingly. As a result, teachers often encourage these very behaviors, usually unconsciously.

For example, by the time a child is categorized as a clown, teachers and fellow students have formed expectations of how that child will behave in school. Clowns, as the name suggests, are not expected to do well academically - they spend most of their time goofing off and trying to get attention by making others laugh. The clowns are encouraged to behave in this way, as others expect. When students are called clowns and are viewed by others as being 'just funny,' they may eventually accept this label and stop trying to do well academically, thus fulfilling the prophecy of poor academic performance.

You can think of this self-fulfilling prophecy as a circular pattern. Our actions toward others impact their beliefs about us, which dictates their actions toward us, which then reinforces our beliefs about ourselves. This, in turn, influences our actions toward others, which brings us back to the beginning of the cycle. This pattern can be negative, like the class clown example, but it can also be positive.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Pygmalion Effect

One classic study conducted in the late 1960s demonstrates the power of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, also known as the Pygmalion effect. Robert Rosenthal informed the teachers in one elementary school that five of the students in their class had been identified as 'academic spurters' who would likely outperform their classmates during the remainder of the year. The teachers were told (falsely) that this had been determined by testing done earlier that year.

In reality, these five students were chosen completely at random, so there should have been no difference in the increase in their academic performance relative to the other students. However, by the end of the year, those five did outperform the other students. The teachers' expectations for the 'academic spurters' caused them to treat those students differently, providing better and more feedback, asking them more questions, etc. This resulted in better academic performance, thus fulfilling the prophecy of academic excellence that was made.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is controversial because some do not believe it exists. However, as demonstrated by the study just described, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that teacher and peer expectations have a profound effect on students in school.


Similarly, another topic of controversy is the fact that the majority of schools in the U.S. use standardized tests for tracking, which is a system in which students are grouped in school according to their perceived abilities. The use of tracking has been debated for decades. The most common reason that some schools no longer use it is because it can reinforce social inequalities.

Standardized tests are used to place students into learning groups.
Standardized Test Tracking

Depending on test scores, previous grades and/or teacher opinions, students are assigned to different types of educational programs. Most students from privileged backgrounds do well on standardized tests because of previous opportunities, so they are channeled into higher-status and higher-quality courses, where they receive the best the school can offer. They usually study higher math and sciences and receive special preparation for college. Therefore, they have even more opportunity to excel and continue being privileged.

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