A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 13 2010

Economics and Education, Part 2: Laffer Curve and Expectations

This is the second in a three-part (maybe more?) series that applies economic theory to aspects of education (introduction in Part 1).

I suspect that an ingrained notion exists among CMs that student achievement is a function of expectations.  Once a teacher raises the bar for what is expected in the classroom, students will “rise to the challenge,” meet that expectation and therefore achieve at higher–or even the highest–levels.  The teacher’s goal is to continually raise expectations.  Like a carrot leading a donkey, these expectations will bring student achievement along for the ride.

The simplified graph, then, of achievement as a function of expectations might look something like this:

Yet, recent experience is showing me that such a picture ignores a plausible reality.  Namely, what happens if high expectations overburden a student? And what happens if such lofty ambitions spur exactly the opposite effect—a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness, and a decrease in student achievement?

All of this reminds of an interesting economic framework used to study tax policy: the Laffer curve.  One of the key questions in tax policy is, “how does the government maximize revenue?”  The commonsense response goes something like this: “the higher the taxes, the more the government takes in—simple!”  Yet, the Laffer curve—named for economist Arthur Lafferis an (ingenious) theoretical framework that attempts to show that raising taxes may not always produce the best outcome for the government.

Essentially, the model begins by imagining the extreme scenarios.  How much revenue would the government raise if it set the tax rate at 0%?  Clearly, none.  How much revenue would a 100% tax rate generate?  Intuitively, one might guess “everything the country produces.”  But that would be wrong.  What one might not realize is that a taxpayer will have no incentive to do any work if s/he knows that anything earned will be taxed away by the government.  Indeed, at a 100% tax rate, the government will also raise nothing. Empty pockets:

Given this, there is instead an optimal tax rate lying somewhere between 0 and 100% at which government revenue is maximized.  This is a counterintuitive idea, but it makes sense when you think about it.

My question, then, is this: could the Laffer curve serve as a good model for understanding the link between expectations and student achievement?  Something like this?

After being “brainwashed” about the importance of high expectations, I’m beginning to reconsider my views.  I tend to think that if you expect too much you risk “losing” everything (of course, if you expect too little, your students won’t be challenged and will not achieve—this is obviously why high expectations should be the status quo).

Nowhere do I see more confirmation of this theory than when I show my students their grades.  Let me just say that I set high expectations in my classroom when it comes to doing work.  There are no excuses. A student misses a day—said student must come make it up. A student has a “family emergency”—said student still has to make up the work.   I use SnapGrades to calculate my grades, which takes all the guesswork out of grading; I grade the work, input the scores and, based on my weightings, students earn grades.

I think this is an extremely fair system.  I’ve even given students leeway when it comes to picking up and turning in make-up work.  Students can pretty much turn assignments in late without any real penalties.  Essentially, if you’ve handed in the work, you’ll earn a passing grade.  Their grades are a direct function of their effort (this is aligned with my classroom motto: “Work hard, get bright!”).

Yet, last I checked, 18 out of my 67 students are passing.  Out of my 22 first period students, my median grade is an 8.5% (note: I have yet to literally see 8 of these students).  When a failing student sees his/her grade in the single digits (i.e. on Mondays, since I give students grade updates at the beginning of each week), they moan and shout and complain and repeat endlessly, “Mr. K, I at least deserve a D!”  Most of the time, they leave my classroom and never show up again (as in, this episode of moan, shout, complain typically happens no more than once with a given student).  These few students have decided that, because they have an F now, they will have an F at the end of the semester.  They don’t seem to understand that grades, at least in my classroom, are not just arbitrary letters given to students but instead are mainly a function of effort (but also of ability).

Like the taxpayer who is taxed too highly and stops working, the student gives up on learning altogether.  There’s no student achievement happening here.  So, should I lower my expectations?  Should I give easier assignments?  Should I grade less strictly?  Should I just secretly add points to their grade?  It is better that a student is in class than out, right?

From a more personal standpoint, I do think that we have to be careful about how high our high expectations are.  I can vividly recall a college class in which I was assigned and expected to read a significant number of books over the course of the semester.  I thought I could handle the load.  I was wrong.  Frustrated, I ended up doing almost none of the reading for the class, and learned little as a result.  I blame the professor for burdening us with so much.  Can our students not develop this same sentiment, especially when we type-A TFA “change agents” (as one non-TFA teacher at my school disparagingly calls us) invade the classrooms of a struggling school?

Given everything that I had learned leading up to my first days of teaching, I thought “no—students will meet whatever expectations you set for them.”  Now, my views are tempered; “yes, they can develop a sentiment of overextension and this can produce an ironically negative outcome.”


I’d like to bring in some education psychology jargon.  Basically, I think my little argument supports esteemed psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development.  Essentially, learning only takes place in a zone between what a student can perform independently and what the same student can perform with the help of a teacher.  Learning, in other words, occurs in that area just—not much—beyond one’s comfort zone.

Students need high expectations. But they also need realistically-high ones.  The expectations must stay within their zones of proximal development.

The lesson from all of this, then, is that you have to know your students. Just as Peter Orszag must have an understanding of the public mood—of how high of a tax rate they will tolerate—a teacher needs to know the nuances of each classroom and each student.  An oblivious teacher risks losing all revenues (i.e. achievement) if s/he taxes students too greatly too early on.

Of course, a gradual increase in taxes—especially if framed in subtle ways—can help bring the tax rate closer to its optimal peak.  The government, or a teacher, can squeeze more out of its constituents.  Somehow, a teacher must be cognizant of these methods, of “tricking” students into achieving more.  This comes by making learning fun and by showing that the hard work is worth the effort.  These are not easy things to do, I’ve learned.


In closing, I don’t want anyone to think that I am attempting to justify setting lower expectations.  I am simply trying to show that sometimes our best intentions might actually produce an outcome contrary to what we had initially hoped—in this case, a higher bar might end up beating students down.

What do you think? Is this a fair analysis?  Should we temper the dialogue on high expectations?  Or, am I missing a piece to this puzzle or unfairly using the Laffer curve as an analogy?  Comments are welcome.

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One Response

  1. garyrubinstein

    Very nice post. Definitely not enough discussion about this important topic. I like the use as yourself as a case study.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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