Too Much of a Good Thing Might Be Bad: the Double-Edged Sword of Parental Aspirations and the Adverse Effects of Aspiration-Expectation Gaps

Herbert W. Marsh*, Reinhard Pekrun, Jiesi Guo, John Hattie, Eyal Karin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Conventional wisdom suggests that parents’ educational expectations (how far they expect their children to go) and aspirations (how far they want their children to go) positively impact academic outcomes and benefits from attending high-ability schools. However, here we juxtapose the following: largely positive effects of educational expectations (of parents, teachers, and students); small, mixed effects of parent aspirations; largely adverse effects of parental aspiration-expectation gaps; and negative effects of school-average achievement on expectations, aspirations, and subsequent outcomes. We used a large, nationally representative longitudinal sample (16,197 Year-10 students from 751 US high schools). Controlling background (achievement, SES, gender, age, ethnicity, academic track, and a composite risk factor), Year 10 educational expectations of teachers and parents had consistently positive effects on the following: student expectations in Years 10 and 12, Year 10 academic self-concept, final high-school grade-point-averages, and long-term outcomes at age 26 (educational attainment, educational and occupational expectations). Effects of parent aspirations on these outcomes were predominantly small and mixed in direction. However, the aspiration-expectation gap negatively predicted all these outcomes. Contrary to our proposed Goldilocks Effect (not too much, not too little, but just right), non-linear effects of expectations and aspirations were small and largely non-significant. Parent, teacher, student expectations, and parent aspirations were all negatively predicted by school-average achievement (a big-fish-little-pond effect). However, these adverse effects of school-average achievement were larger for parents and particularly teachers than students. Furthermore, these expectations and aspirations partly mediated the adverse impacts of school-average achievement on subsequent grade-point-average and age-26 outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number49
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023
Externally publishedYes

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