Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lunacy of High Expectations (part 3)

Reason #4: We Already Are
The final reason I despise the high expectations lunacy is because it carries with it the offensive, ungrounded, baseless accusation that we teachers don’t already hold our students to high expectations.

I’m not talking about the teacher who reads the newspaper in the classroom, or the one who has subs every other week.  Yes, those teachers have issues, and probably should do something else with their lives.  They are also a tiny minority.  We’re talking about all the rest of us.

How can you tell if a teacher has high academic expectations?  Simple: if the students are challenged, and if those challenges emerge from the necessity to think about or practice an idea or skill.  Further, these challenges must relate to the content of the course of study.  Some people think we need standards (state or national) to delineate what the content should be.  I personally disagree, but am willing to forego the point as long as we stop spending billions rewriting them every three years, thus requiring new standardized tests, new curriculum, new textbooks, and new professional development.  We know what needs to be taught.  This is not the problem and it is way, way over-emphasized.

In chemistry, for example, a student must learn how to write chemical formulas.  If you take a chemistry class at any level, and don’t learn how to determine that sodium chloride is NaCl, then you haven’t learned basic chemistry.  Yet, I have students who, after spending weeks working on this kind of problem, still have no idea how to do it.  And I have other students who master it in a few days.  These students are in the same classroom.  So how do you keep teaching and challenging the ones who get it while continuing to work with the ones who don’t?  Well, if you haven’t taught, you’ve probably never thought about that, because you assume all students are at basically the same level.  They aren’t.  But at some point, for the sake of the students who have mastered it, you have to just move on.  If other students haven’t mastered it yet, it is up to them to come outside of class and get extra help.

And that, my friends, is a high expectation.  Coming after school for help is extremely challenging for many students, and there are numerous reasons.  But if it’s what will make the difference, they need to do it sometimes.  I’d like to go through a few other high expectations I employ.  They’re specific, relevant, and much more useful than a list of standards that everyone already knows.

The first one is this: If a topic challenges you, and if you want to learn it, you’ll keep working at it until you do.  Keep trying, and I’ll keep helping you.  But I can’t hold up my entire class when three students (two of whom are gone two days a week, and one of whom never brings supplies and can’t focus for more than ten seconds) still don’t understand something and the rest do.  I have a responsibility to the other 31 of them to keep going.  High expectations demand that we learn a number of topics, and though I want to spend more time on some topics, at some point that time runs out.  Now, which students do you think come after school to get help?  Think about it.

My second high expectation: I challenge my students in their thinking.  I don’t simply give them a bunch of questions and say “read the book and figure it out.”  (Not to say this also is not a form of high expectations, but in general I would consider it a less effective form of teaching).  I want them to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, why it works.  To use the simple example above, why is it NaCl and not NaCl2?  What does Na mean?  What does the ‘2' mean, and why don’t we use it there, but we do use it for water’s formula, H2O?  Why can’t NaK be a formula?  These are simple questions, but they are very challenging for a student learning this for the first time.

And they are ten times more challenging for students with poor math skills.  If you ask some students what -3 plus 3 equals, they will say 6, or -6.  One of my students took five minutes of one-on-one work with me (while the other 29 students kept working, I hope...a third high expectation–the ability to work independently) to finally see that -3 plus 3 equals zero.  And the next day, I had to go over it again with her.  Weeks later, applying this to chemical formulas like NaCl was still a challenge, but she was doing much better.  For her, high expectations meant learning to write these formulas.  It challenged her writing, her math skills, and many other levels of cognition.

For other students (at the same grade level, because age means nothing), high expectations means they must learn to write a college-style lab report, with correct format, structure, verb tenses, and all the other details, as well as to analyze the data and explain what it means.  If you gave that assignment to the girl above, she’d put her head down and give up.  It’s too hard for her right now.  It’s not within her “zone of proximal development,” as one educational theory puts it.  I have AP chemistry students who last year got A’s in my first-year chemistry class, and now have C’s and D’s in the AP course.  Are the expectations too high?  Well, they certainly are for a student who couldn’t pass the first-year course.  Yet there are schools that require every student to take chemistry, regardless of math ability.  That's beyond absurd.

Some more of my expectations:
For some students, high expectations means to stay in your seat all period.  This is HARD for some students, even in high school.  To bring a pencil.  To work on a set of questions for ten minutes without talking.  To leave your cell phone off for 45 minutes.  To not bring food into class, even after being told dozens of times it is not allowed and getting in arguments about it and having referrals written because of it.  These are high expectations for some, and they are behavioral, not academic.  Yet, nothing good happens academically if a student thinks a text message is more important than understanding a new concept or mastering a skill.

High expectations involve anything that demands more of you than you were able to do previously.

Under that definition, just showing up is a high expectation for a lot of students.  Just be at school every day.  Very difficult.  Beat that one, and we can move on to the next one.  In one class this year, after just one quarter, over 80% of my students had already missed more than five days.  Several had missed more than ten.  Ten days missed out of nine weeks is a disaster if you already struggle with the content of that course.  (And these are unexcused...that doesn’t include field trips, sports, and all the other stuff that interferes with education...see Accountability Series Posts 1 and 2).

The girl who struggled with formulas was a good student, and she was challenged by the academic expectations of my class.  For her, they were high.  My behavioral expectations were a non-issue.  She asked questions, was willing (most of the time) to struggle, and wanted to learn. 

That didn’t make it easier.  It made it possible. 

High expectations are empty slogans to a student who doesn’t care.  High expectations are dart boards for the apathetic.  They’re in a different universe.

The HEX crowd has no concept of any of this.  They are totally oblivious to this reality.  They think “standards” actually determine the quality of education.  No, a student who wants to learn determines the quality of his or her education.  A student will get as much or as little out of a class as they want.  If a teacher doesn’t challenge his students’ thinking enough or build their skills to the level they should, this teacher needs to improve.  But everyone agrees on this point, so I’m not focusing on it.

It’s the reverse of this that no one considers.  If every teacher in a building was rated as superb by all the HEXers and all the PeWKoB, they still would get nowhere if the students don’t do the work.  I want to hear the HEXers answer this question: What would happen if we took a hundred superb teachers and put them in the “worst” school in some major city?  And, what if we took the teachers from that school and put them in the classrooms the superb teachers used to be in?

I’ll tell you what would happen.  The “bad” teachers from the “failing” school would suddenly see more students learning and doing well and meeting standards and going to college, and the “superb” teachers would have more failing students than they’ve had in their lives, and would be challenged in ways as never before. 

Did their expectations of students change?

And, if they decide to “lower” their expectations in light of their new group of students, are they doing them a disservice?  Or, are they meeting them where they are, and challenging them with attainable goals? 

An unattainable goal is not a high expectation; it’s a fantasy.

Expectations Wrap Up
I think this is the reason I get so upset about the high expectations tripe.  It insinuates that the reason we have more dropouts at our school than some rich private school is because we just aren’t challenging our students enough.  And it ignores the facts on the ground, that what’s hard for one kid is a cakewalk for another, that high expectations are relative and not uniform, and that most of all, behavioral expectations are just as important, if not more so, than academic expectations.

And until the HEX crowd starts talking about ways to hold students to high behavioral expectations, I don’t want to hear anything more from them about academic ones.  I already hold my students to both, but bureaucracies, the threat of lawsuits, burdensome discipline policies that rob me of my authority or render it ineffective, and most of all a lack of time prevent me from being able to hold students accountable to the behavioral ones.  And this does far more to keep them from achieving and meeting the academic ones than any set of standards can ever fathom.

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