The Pygmalion Effect

June 14, 2017
David McFarland
Vonnie Michali is giving students with intellectual disabilities the chance -- and the hope -- they need to succeed in the classroom.

In the 1960s, German-born and Harvard-educated social psychologist Robert Rosenthal published a paper describing how the expectations of researcher conducting an experiment influenced the subjects being studied. The paper piqued the interest of Lenore Jacobson, an elementary principal in San Francisco, who contacted Rosenthal and eventually offered her school as a place to test the theory in an educational setting.

Students were given IQ tests, but the results were hidden from teachers. Instead, the teachers were told that a randomly selected 20 percent of the students were "intellectual bloomers." As the study progressed, it became clear to Rosenthal and Jacobson that, indeed, those students from whom teachers expected more did perform better.
The theory, termed the Rosenthal effect or Pygmalion effect, and the results of the study, were published in Rosenthal and Jacobson's 1968 book, "Pygmalion in the Classroom."

Since that study, researchers have attempted to prove or disprove the concept.

Dirt bikes

"In Forest County, there's a lot of natural resources, but not a lot of anything else," said Vonnie Michali. "A lot of the kids are from single-parent homes."

Looking for work, Michali went to her local school district so look for openings. She was hired as an after-school program director. She coordinated a program aimed at helping to improve the school work of kids who were in trouble. The county had written a grant for a program in which students could set goals and earn time riding mini bikes as a reward for meeting them.

Wanting to expand the opportunities for the students, she asked herself what they had around them that can teach positive skills. "We looked at teaching them fishing skills, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, survival skills – we used that same concept of set goals and working on them through the week," Michali said. "It was very successful. Kids who were never on the honor roll made the honor roll. It was magical. There are a lot of retired people in Forest County (who served as program mentors); it was wonderful to watch generations coming together."

"From that came my interest in self-determination."

Starting over

"I always wanted to go to college, but it just didn't work out for me," Vonnie Michali said. "I got married and had three beautiful boys. After a divorce in my early 40s, my kids were grown and I decided it was time for me to do something that always burned inside of me."

She turned to Clarion University – Venango to explore her options. Rehab interested Michali because of she'd had a lot of experience with Viet Nam vets and their troubles with PTSD and substance abuse. Plus, coming from Forest County, where there are a lot of substance abuse issues, she was thinking about how to get the knowledge and skills to apply in that county.

She began an educational journey at age 43 that she thought would end two years later.

"One thing led to another, and I decided to go for a bachelor's degree, then on to a master's," Michali said. "I thought I was done."

Her professors thought differently. They told her, "You need to go on."

One of those professors was Dr. Greg Clary.

"Greg put me in his truck, drove me to Kent State, walked me in the door and introduced me to the people I needed to know," Michali said.

"We talked, and they knew I had experience in developing programs," Michali said.

In 2008, the Department of Higher Education Educational Opportunity Act said students with intellectual developmental disabilities who would like to go to college to more successfully transition into adult life, ought to be able to do that. They made money available to 27 colleges across the country. Kent State was one of them.

"They asked if I thought I could develop a one-year college program," Michali said. "They offered me a graduate assistant position, so immediately, before I even started my classes in August, I was already developing programs."
The data from the one-year program helped Kent State, with Michali at the helm, roll it into a four-year program, for which they received a five-year grant of $2 million.

"When we got the grant, we accepted 20 students into the pilot program and followed them all four years so we could get really good research data to know what they need as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors," she said. "One student dropped out and another became ill, but 18 of the initial 20 graduated in May 2015."

"Of those 18, 15 students were working in part- to full-time competitive employment, which blows the national average out of the water," Michali said. "The national average, one year after high school, is that just 14 percent of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are working in some capacity."

The program

"The misconception is that because it's an intellectual disability, these students can't (succeed)," Michali said. "When I was recruiting my original 20-student pilot group, I went to the school district looking for students who completed high school but wanted to go on to post-secondary education. I had a math teacher ridicule the program, saying it was a waste of time and energy, that these students couldn't do this type of thing at all."

They key, she said, is raising expectations. In the second year of the program, Michali invited that teacher to observe a financial literacy class.

"Afterward, come back and we'll talk," Michali told her. "She came back and was crying. She said, 'I just saw students doing math that I never thought they could do. I'm retiring in three years. Tell me how to be a better teacher.'"

Michali said students with IDD often spend much of their time in resource rooms in high school and haven't participated in academic-type courses. She was shocked to see the pilot group's overall lack of computer skills. They could do social media, but they couldn't use a computer as an academic tool to write or to do research.

"After I saw that, I went back to the schools to find out how students with intellectual disabilities are being included. They weren't," Michali said. "We identified these areas that students needed but didn't have. We have a self-determination class, where they learn nine skills and how they're important. We have a disability awareness class. Many haven't been told they have a disability or don't have an awareness of the areas that are difficult for them because of the disability. We don't focus on disability in a negative way. The program is strength based; however, one must recognize their needs to more fully capitalize on their strengths. Students must also learn the laws (e.g. American Disability Act, and Rehab 504) that protect their rights as persons with disabilities, the laws that provide accommodations, and how to use them to the fullest advantage."

The students live in dorms alongside other Kent State students. In addition to CCS classes designed to improve independent living, social, academic and career skills, students also take many inclusive Kent State classes that provide knowledge and skills in the students' choice of career field. The first KSU course that all students take is an orientation class called First Year Experience, which helps them acclimate to the campus and all that the university has to offer. For CCS students, attending FYE is their first experience in a college course that helps them to understand how college is different from high school, Michali said. It is time for the students to begin to think for themselves and to learn how to direct their own life paths.

"They take a CCS career exploration course to identify their strengths, preferences, interests and needs (SPINs) and to explore what kind of career they might want to do that will match their SPINs," she said. "For instance, one student wanted to be a jet pilot. We weren't going to tell him he couldn't, but we had him research the skills needed to become a jet pilot. He was able to come to the realization on his own, and began to focus on how close to the jet he could get." This helped him to explore and prepare for employment working in airports in some capacity.
There is never more than one CCS student in a Kent State class.

"Because they often stick together, we observe students not interacting with classmates. We want them to learn how to communicate and work or appropriately interact with classmates. That will generalize to having the skills to more successfully work with future coworkers, or an employer," Michali said.

Included in the program are several work experiences, beginning in the sophomore year.

"We have them stay on or near campus so we can evaluate their work skills," she said. "By junior year they've identified a career, and by senior year they're doing internships."

Kent State's program is recognized as the number one program in the country, because of "the pieces we developed that others are having difficulty in accomplishing. Michali gives Kent State high praise for providing a rich learning environment and opportunities to persons of all abilities who want to learn and prepare for life as adults.


The program's mission is "to create meaningful experiences for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities by maximizing opportunities in order to equip them to become self-determined and autonomous adults."
The CCS program reaches students with IDD, traumatic brain injury or autism who couldn't get into college in traditional ways. Students must want to be there. "We listen and follow the student's voice," Michali said.

"We don't like IQ numbers, but that's something we must check to determine that there are, indeed, cognitive difficulties which would prevent access to college through traditional means. To be considered having an intellectual disability, students must have significant limitations in both cognitive functioning and in adaptive behavior, usually indicated by an IQ of 70-75 or below," Michali said "Students in the CCS program range from 40-75 IQ, but it isn't all about the IQ number, which is why we do not only look at IQ. One may think the higher the number the better the student can perform. What we are finding is that it is more about the effort that a student puts forth. I'm thinking of one student in particular who was at the lower level but far outdid a student at a higher level because of her effort. I like to meet them face to face – show me what you've got."

Students are required to have a phone, preferably a smartphone.

"A lot of what we do is help them test out different technological apps," Michali said. "Almost all of our students cannot tell time. They can say the time, but they can't say what it means in relation to the day. That time management piece is difficult. Anything abstract is very difficult for our students. A smartphone or iPad is crucial. Every week we give them an 'app of the week' to test out. If you like it, keep it. If not, get rid of it, and we'll try something else next week until they have a tool box – tools they can take with them.'


"This is some of the most challenging work, but the most rewarding," Michali said. "We're opening doors that were closed, expanding opportunities for people with so much to offer, whom, historically, society has not valued."
Within a few weeks of the day they start, we begin to see changes. It's so amazing to hear them talk like adults. If they're stressed out over an upcoming test, Michali and other faculty members love to hear that, because it means they're taking ownership.

One student said, "What I love about being here is they gave me a clean slate. I can do what I want to do." Another said, "I'm not bullied. I can do the things I never thought about doing." They walk taller, with their heads up, with confidence.

"They're increasing their own awareness of what they can do," Michali said. "Students leave here prepared to be good employees. We still have many barriers to overcome, often related to stereotypes and low expectations. I have heard these postsecondary programs for students with IDD called the latest civil rights movement. It's been incredible to have an opportunity to contribute and to be part of laying down the footprints for others to follow."

Last Updated 4/9/18