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The Achievement Gap is an Expectations Gap

July 12, 2012 5 minute Read by Patrick Kobler

Greg Toppo of USA Today recently reported that America’s students think “School is too easy.”  Analyzing over three years of student questionnaires from the Department of Education, Mr. Toppo provides some very sobering statistics regarding America’s students and their attitudes toward education. Among them is that 57% of eight-graders feel their history work is “often or always too easy.”  Plainly, over half of America’s students feel they are not receiving adequate knowledge about the history of their people, their nation and their world.  It is no wonder that a recent Newsweek poll found that of adult citizens surveyed, “29% could not name the Vice President [and] 43% percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.” Even more shocking is the fact that 39% of high school seniors – those students who should be in their final scholarly preparation for college or a good job – “rarely write about what they read in class.”  Translated, close to two-fifths of an emerging adult population rarely practice writing in school.  Consider the consequences for a child, a community, a state and a nation. Education reform often cites the “the achievement gap.”  Statistically, the achievement gap is the 25% disparity in math performance and the 24.1% disparity in science performance between Caucasian students and their Hispanic and African-American peers. The problems existent in American education, however, stem from more than an achievement gap.    They stem from an expectations gap.  Mr. Toppo’s research reinforces this sentiment. For two years, I was an inner city high school teacher at a consistently underperforming school and witnessed the culmination of a decade of low-expectations. When I first met my high school students, they were unfamiliar with the concept of taking notes, became upset when asked to read and found the notion of homework foreign.  Many did not know how to outline a paper, form a paragraph or use proper punctuation.  A majority often came to school unprepared: no books, no bags, no pencils and no eraser.  They had no expectations to meet.  Never did. My student’s laissez-faire attitude toward school use to frustrate and confuse me.  I would ask myself, “Why don’t they try?  I did.” But after teaching for a few months I realized it was not the students who stopped trying, it was those tasked with educating them who did. They had been trained to fail, been told all of their lives through the medium of low-expectations that they were not good enough for a challenge; that because of their socioeconomic status or life circumstance, they could not complete a complex math problem or write a five paragraph paper. Instead of challenging work, teachers would assign my high school students elementary tasks such as completing word searches, reading children’s books and drawing pictures.  (None of these assignments have any relevance to the oft cited excuse of overbearing standardized test preparation by the way). Should America be surprised there is an achievement gap when such a large expectations gap exists? Not every low-performing school is like the one I taught at, but an individual would be hard-pressed to find a student in a middle to high income community’s school who says their work is too easy.   No child at a high-performing high school would ever be asked to a read a children’s book or complete a word search. The disparity in expectations is a main reason certain students perform better and, consequently, have better life outcomes.  Students who are challenged in school become adults who are prepared for life.  Students who are ill-prepared, assigned meaningless tasks and who are not challenged because teachers and leaders feel they are not capable, ultimately graduate into lives of dependency, poverty and missed potential. In order to solve the achievement gap, we must first close the expectations gap.  Every child can achieve in school and, as such, we must hold all children to the same high expectations. This post was written by Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute