The Hard Bigotry of Unsupported Expectations

exceed-expectations-510By Nick McDaniels — It has been quite some time since President Bush (really speechwriter Michael Gerson) coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

What a rallying cry!

This line has been undoubtedly put on t-shirts, repeated in teacher prep. courses, used as school district motivation, and lifted for titles of academic work. It sounds great, right? – especially in the context in which Bush delivered the line.

The idea is that we discriminate against students of color and students living in low income communities (who, in America, are often the same students) by not having high expectations. The end result, presumably, is that then these students achieve less than their potential. Who is going to argue with that? Not me, certainly. We need context. We need to see how the reactions to this accusation have played out in practice.

In an effort to raise expectations, we, educators in general, have added more advanced classes in schools serving children from low income communities. We, as teachers, have increased our standards for the type, amount, and quality of work we accept. We talk about holding ourselves and students accountable. This is all progress, and not that all or any of it can be directly attributed to Bush’s accusations, but it is all no doubt related to concurrent pedagogical and social trends and demands. Let us pause before declaring what might prove to be a Pyrrhic victory against the soft bigotry.

What happens when a teacher or a school internalizes the fear of low expectations, or gets confused about the difference between what it means to have high expectations and what it means to help students meet them? Bad results for all involved. I hear about it from conversations with teachers and administrators, friends around the country. When we begin to take students in any community, forget those defined only by race and class, who read on a fifth grade level and demand immediately that they read Crime and Punishment or Hamlet, or we take students who struggle with long division and plop them down in a Pre-calc class, we are having incredibly high expectations for them.

No soft bigotry here to speak of. But what are we doing to bridge the gap in knowledge or skills for them? In many cases nothing. We are placing more value in our expectations for students than in our teaching of them. This is not soft bigotry at all. It is something much worse. We are crushing students who already have waivering confidence, who already have reservations about school, who have not previously had such high expectations. We are turning them off, shutting them down, causing them to walk away, to fail. And for what? To make us feel less guilty about our low expectations.

Struggling students need to be met where they are and launched forward. It they can read Milton or balance equations, let them have at it, and if they would sooner put their head down and go to sleep than open a 500 page book or solve an equation with more letters than numbers, start them somewhere else and work toward that goal. Instead they are being met with teachers and school leaders who are playing a dangerous game of publicized self-back-patting. These adults are now able to talk about how they are getting 7th graders to read The Grapes of Wrath or wrestle with algorithms or how they have increased the number of students in honors and advanced placement classes. Walk into the classrooms where this is happening, look at the empty desks, the students with their heads down, the students who have given up, the students who have yet to pass the pre-requisite for the course they are currently in, the students texting, listening to ipods, and you may find an adult who is proud of how high their expectations are. This is not justice. This is not the justice that Bush imagined in that speech (or is it?).

My apologies to the Stand and Deliver teachers out there who are setting a high bar and working hard and long hours alongside their students to help them hit the target. This is exactly what we need, but even the late Jaime Escalante talked about how unsustainable this type of work is within a broken system. My gut and my experience tell me that these folks are few and far between in a system that does not work to support students individually, to meet individual needs, but rather to massage statistics to make the system seem less of a failure.

Low expectations are inexcusable. So are high ones that are unsupported. One offers a slow road toward failure, while the other abruptly crushes hopes and dreams. Neither is just, neither should be allowed, and neither should be congratulated or praised. If we truly care about students, students of color, students from low income communities, we will not allow the self-importance of well-meaning but misguided adults to cheat our children out of a free and appropriate education. We must remind ourselves that we can be inhibitors to good learning, through low expectations or otherwise, and putting ourselves in the way of a student’s progress by having her waste a year in a class that does not challenge her or in a class for which she does not have the support or requisite knowledge is setting her up for long term failure, the effects of which will be felt for all subsequent years until someone decides that she has incdredible potential which needs to be unlocked and skill which needs to be honed and stops dropping a thousand page novel on her desk and calling it a rigorous and challenging education.

Maybe the answers are complicated and evasive, but the questions sure are simple. If the answer of arbitrarily higher expectations is proving ineffective, then perhaps we should revisit the questions. What does a student know? What does a student not know? What should a student know? What can a student do? What can a student not do? What should a student know how to do? What does a student want to learn? What is a teacher capable of teaching a student?

I think if you start asking these questions about every student, then our expectations will become appropriate, our methods of helping students achieve them will become appropriate, and we will all have something to actually be proud of, something deeper, more deserved, more just than the pride we feel for simply avoiding soft bigotry.

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