Special Effects

Special Effects

I am to blame for Madison’s achievement gap.

Here’s how I know.

In the 1990s I was a volunteer at Iowa’s Business Horizons, a weeklong business camp for high school juniors and seniors. I had all the problems you would expect from a novice trying to corral hormones-in-tennis-shoes into being interested in business … for an entire week … in the heat of the summer.

It was a disaster. I went back the next year with a different approach. At our first meeting, I told my kids that they were assigned to my team, Industry B, because they were special.

It took them a minute to absorb this. Then the questions came.

One of the smart kids asked, “Is it because we all have high GPAs?”


An artsy kid guessed, “Are we the most creative team?”


I told them they wouldn’t learn why they were special until the last day of camp. Until then, they might notice that other teams and coaches were watching them closely, because Industry B was expected to win the competitions. Guest speakers would expect them to have better handshakes and better manners. All eyes were on them. That week, my team worked their asses off. I was with them for ninety-six hours, working far harder than I have in any job before or since. Industry B wanted breakfast meetings and meetings at night. They told me that word had spread that Industry B was a special group. And I gently reinforced them.

Friday was the moment of truth, the awards banquet. Would my little social experiment work? My students worked hard, but would it pay off?

As the winners of the business plan competition were being called, my students fidgeted with nervousness. Third place was announced. Then second place. Finally, first place—Industry B!

I. Could not. Believe it.

After the hugs and the celebration and the photos, I had to come clean. The students gathered in a circle around me, all aglow with their shared accomplishment. I had to deal them the ultimate buzzkill: I told them that I had lied. There was no special reason they’d been selected for Industry B. The lesson I wanted to teach them (hopefully) stuck: You achieve the expectations that you (and others) have for you.

In 1968, Lenore Jacobson and Robert Rosenthal conducted a classroom experiment that proved the same thing I’d learned with my Business Horizons students: If teachers expect enhanced performance from some children, the students show that enhancement. It’s called the Pygmalion Effect and it’s been proven time and again.

Which brings me back to my role in Madison’s achievement gap.

In November, Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, visited Madison and laid it on the line: We have an achievement gap because we accept it. We don’t expect more, and we don’t get more.

This is the Pygmalion Effect at a community level. All of us who are not outraged that eighty-four percent of white kids and fifty percent of black kids graduate from Madison high schools are complicit in our achievement gap. We don’t expect more, and we don’t get it. We have somehow come to see this stark contrast in achievement as “normal.” We have internalized a belief that black and Hispanic kids, especially black boys, will not do as well in school as their sisters or their white peers. Why?

I am complicit in this belief. Shame on me. Shame on all of us who don’t expect more.

But as Business Horizons taught me, if we—citizens and parents and volunteers and educators and electeds and all of us—ratchet up our expectations, our students will rise to meet those expectations.

Unless something systemic gets in the way.

My Industry B story has one final twist, something instructive about Madison’s achievement gap.

The next year at Business Horizons, another advisor, Judy, tried my method: We both told our groups that they were special. And at the end of the week, our groups won the competitions.

Before Judy and I headed home, the Business Horizons staff pulled us aside and warned us that next year, our approach—of telling kids they were special—wouldn’t be allowed. “Kids can’t be told that they’re special,” they explained, “because it creates an unfair advantage.”

In Madison, which of our kids are special? And who’s telling them?  

Rebecca Ryan is a futurist who’s worked with more than fifty cities in North America on strategies to engage and retain young talent. Contact Rebecca Ryan at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

Find more of her columns .