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Different Expectations for Different Students

February 1, 2013 5 minute Read by Eric J. Smith

At the George W Bush Institute I have the honor to be a part of a team that has been reviewing the State ESEA waivers approved by the US Department of Education.  This may sound odd, but I find them fascinating to read.  Each state has unique strategies for holding schools accountable for student achievement, encouraging improvement in overall performance and reducing the disparity between different populations of students.  The waivers spell out what each state expects of their districts and schools as well as the aspirations they have for their students. The waivers put our states in the spotlight.  By examining student achievement trend lines within states, we will not only be tracking school and student performance but also the effectiveness of the accountability strategies chosen by the state.  Will the strategies in the waivers result in improved student performance or not?  Will the student achievement trend lines take a jump up or fall back?  In my experience, we shouldn’t have to wait long to learn the answers to these questions.  Effective strategies that are well implemented should show positive impact in the first year.  Either the strategies chosen will help districts, schools and teachers to clarify expectations and focus their efforts or they will send the signal that the pressure is off and it’s time to coast. There have been three emerging practices that are common among several states that I find concerning:

  1. Creating different expectations for different students
  2. Limiting state and district focus to those schools with overall achievement in the bottom 15%
  3. Limiting the identification of a failing school to every three years

In this blog I will focus on the first concern and discuss 2 and 3 in future blogs. I was the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District when No Child Left Behind was enacted.  The message in the legislation was crystal clear: as educators we have a responsibility to ensure that all of our children in all of our schools are able to perform on grade level in the areas of math and reading.  If students are not achieving on grade level we need to be making progress in that direction every year. Being in North Carolina this type of legislation wasn’t a shock.  Like Texas and Florida, North Carolina had pioneered very similar legislation several years earlier.  Perhaps because I was in Charlotte, however, the expectation that all students will achieve at grade level took on special meaning.  We were back in Federal Court and the issue of equity and fairness weighed heavy on all of us.  I am proud of Charlotte; its educators, parents, community leaders and students.  They understood the expectation and stood determined to see it delivered. It was understood that the expectation for every child in every school must be the same or you will create and perpetuate a system of unequals.  For students who struggle academically and have fallen behind, the expectation should not be lowered, but the effort, strategy, resources and opportunity that we as educators provide should be increased to guarantee each students success.  The variable isn’t student expectation, it is our effort. I saw the positive impact of having the same expectations for children across all student groups.  We expected more of our children, we expected more of ourselves and we expected on grade level performance from every child. It proved to be the right public policy for all children.  The reality is that if you expect less for some because they have historically struggled, it indicates a lack of belief in our students capabilities and determination, our educators efficacy, and it demonstrates a lack of commitment to strategies that lead to the success of children most in need. In the words of Dr. Ron Edmonds: We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

This post was written by Eric Smith, Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.