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Students can meet expectations—if we challenge them

Article by Eric J. Smith April 9, 2014 //   7 minute read

As a parent, teacher, principal, superintendent and commissioner of education, I have witnessed the spark in a child’s eye when they are sitting in a demanding classroom, struggling with a concept but then experience the thrill of “getting it right.”

This satisfaction doesn’t come from grasping something that comes easily. Instead, it comes from understanding material that stretches you mentally, challenges the order that you have given things and allows you to realize that you are capable of mastering a subject.

Personally, I have learned a lot about expectations from our daughter. Her son was diagnosed early with various special needs. Our grandson struggled with reading and behaviors that often didn’t sit well with teachers. She could have had low expectations for his ability to achieve. But she had an unflinching resolve that he would not just succeed but excel in school.

Meeting that goal wasn’t easy. Schools pushed back against her expectations for him to be in advanced classes in middle school. And he did his own pushing back on homework and weekend tutoring. Yet she persisted. Now, he is in advanced classes as a freshman and, despite some occasional complaints about homework, has confidence and believes in himself.   

I point this example out because, unfortunately, we educators often inadvertently deny students the wonder of intellectual challenge. Because we are caring people (that is why we are in education), we don’t want to put children in situations where we think they may fail. Like an over-protective parent, we don’t want to push our students and have them take academic risks.

Over my 42 years as an educator I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from well-meaning educators:  “I don’t want to put the child in a situation where they may fail.” Said another way, “I have low expectations for this child and don’t think he/she can succeed.”

Our assumptions about which children can succeed and which cannot is too often based on bias and our own stereotyping about what we think a child can do.  This phenomenon doesn’t occur occasionally but routinely in our schools. 

In fact, the decisions to not place children of color, limited economic means and special needs in more challenging course work occur so frequently that they look like blatant discrimination when you consider those decisions as a whole. The same is true for the willingness of schools to drop a student from a course that is “hard.” Taken together, this is the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

As superintendent, I saw firsthand how “well intentioned” guidance counselors systematically assigned high-achieving, low-income minority students from elementary school  into basic level classes in middle school because they didn’t want to expect too much of them. They didn’t want to put them in a situation where they may fail.

Too many educators think it is far better to succeed at something easy and with no value than to fail at something that is demanding and meaningful. But being in a challenging classroom signals our students that we believe they are capable and worthy.

More times than not, students will work to live up to our expectations. When the middle school counselors were required to reassign students correctly to advanced level classes, the students responded with incredible success. It has been my experience that when more is asked of our students, regardless of background, they step up to the challenge almost every time.

Basing our assumptions about what a student can do on where they come from instead of what they can do permeates all levels of K-12 education. In our high schools, capable students are too often advised or worse denied access to Advanced Placement based on teacher recommendation instead of hard performance data.

In one district where I served as superintendent, we developed a prediction of a student’s likely success in Advanced Placement based on their performance on the PSAT.  When the use of this tool was implemented districtwide the AP program was transformed.  What we learned was that the students most often denied access to AP through the old teacher recommendation process were, once again, most often low income students, students of color and students with special needs.  

Expectations are often low when we disregard performance data and base our judgment about what a child is capable of achieving on family background, race, economic status or special needs. Our children should be encouraged to go beyond even what they think they are capable of accomplishing.

Fortunately or unfortunately, our children will live up to the expectation we set for them.  That’s why district, state and federal policies should create incentives for systematic high expectations for ALL children.

Our teachers are up to the challenge. Our students deserve the opportunity. And our parents should have the assurance that their child is receiving the challenging education they deserve.

Now it is up to us as parents, educators and policymakers to change the trajectory for our children.

*As parents, we should not overly-protect our children. Instead we should demand more of them and their schools.

*As educators, we should not expect from our students work that is “safe.” We should expect work that is challenging and requires a nudge, encouragement and support.

*As policymakers we need to stop retreating from high standards and high expectations. We should embrace the notion that our schools are in the business of achieving lofty goals.

Our schools must be about high expectations and high achievement. That must be their mission. And their high standards must be for ALL students, not just some.

Eric Smith is the former education commissioner for Florida as well as a past superintendent of schools in Charlotte, North Carolina and Anne Arundel County, Maryland.





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