Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lunacy of High Expectations (part 1)

What’s the number one indicator of student success in school? When you ask that question of education establishment (PeWKoB–see related post, "The Money Issue," for explanation), you often hear the same answer: High expectations.  I’ve read and heard this in dozens of meetings, publications, news articles, and editorials.  Every time I hear it, I groan a little louder.

Why? Don’t I believe in high expectations?  Shouldn’t all students be held to high standards?  Aren’t we shortchanging students if we don’t expect them all to reach their fullest potential?

These rhetorical questions are the common argument.  I mean, who wouldn’t be for all those things? They just sound so wonderful.

Well, as with so many issues in education, the people making these statements have very little understanding of how their ideas could be practically applied in a classroom.

The reasons I groan when I hear this are the subject of this post.

Reason #1: The Human Element
The people who tout high expectations as the antidote to low student achievement indirectly imply that too many teachers don’t expect much of their students.  They trot out the exceptions–the bad teachers here and there who just don’t care.  I will continue to insist that this is a much smaller number than most people think.  But the high expectations crowd (HEX) genuinely believes a large number of teachers aren’t doing their jobs.  In Waiting for Superman, whole schools are described as having good or bad teachers, as if an entire school can be full of only one type.  As if there are only two types to begin with.

In contrast, when we start to describe real classrooms, and the problems with student behavior, attendance, laziness, poor study habits, bad attitudes, lack of motivation, disrespect, excuses for not doing any work, etc, these “reformers” often say things like, “They’re teenagers! They’re supposed to act like that.  It’s our job to ‘mold’ them.”  I ask in response: what happened to high expectations?  If someone really believes in high expectations, they cannot just say “they’re teenagers.”  I’ve had hundreds of students over the years who don’t exhibit these destructive behaviors.  They don’t all act like that.  Most of them don’t, in fact.  But why do the HEXers continually evade the questions of why so many students do act this way, and what we can do about it?

If a student is disengaged, the problem according to the HEX crowd is that the teacher isn’t “motivating” them enough.  As if a single person paid an average wage in contact with the kid less than one hour a day is capable of overcoming the mountain of obstacles the kid faces at home and outside of school, in addition to whatever behavioral problems he has as a result.  A teacher in my school was once observed by a district official.  The entire class was engaged and learning except for one student, and the official focused on that student, and criticized the teacher for not doing more to motivate him.  So, one student out of a whole class makes a teacher bad.  Because it’s not possible the student is just not a good student, or is having major issues outside of school making it too difficult to learn.

The HEX crowd discounts the influence of life outside of school. They ignore the human element in the process of learning.  Students are not widgets.  You can’t just put a standard on the board and say, “Now students, because the state says we have to learn this item, that’s what we’re doing today,” and all the students snap to attention because now this is a state standard, so I suddenly want to learn and understand it.  “But it will be on the state test, which you have to pass to graduate.”

If motivation were truly this simple, we wouldn’t need state tests.  A student who cares about graduating does whatever it takes to graduate.  A student who doesn’t, doesn’t.

Now, am I saying there’s no way to encourage a student to change their perspective on education, to try harder, to seek more help, to start going to class every day, to consider the impact this has on their future, to think about life after high school, about work, about financial stability, vocational competence, personal responsibility, how to hold down a job, and the ability to participate as a citizen in our democracy?

Based on the fact I can rattle this list off in ten seconds without thinking, what do you think?  I try to motivate kids all the time, and all of those things are good reasons to care about education.  Does the HEX crowd really believe teachers don’t know about all this, about why education is important?  Why do they think we became teachers?  Of course we care about it.  We talk about it all the time!

The real question is, why don’t more students respond to those and other motivations?  Life is hard, for one.  For some students, it’s very hard.  Overly complicated.  I have a student right now in fact, who has been without a home for the last six weeks.  Now, what effect do you think that’s having on his attendance?  Tough question, I know.  Or, how about his self-confidence?  His ability to stay organized?  He has a good attitude.  He comes ready to learn.  But things outside the classroom are strangling him right now.  We all hope those things change.

The HEX crowd ignores this entire reality.  David Brooks, who is fast becoming my new favorite columnist, wrote a fantastic column called “The New Humanism” recently in which he discusses a common shortcoming among elites and policymakers.  (See link: .  He writes:

“These failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society–not only in the policy world, but in many spheres–that we are divided creatures.  Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect.  Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.”

He gives examples from several spheres of society, including education.  The HEX crowd typifies this irrational belief, the belief that by simply changing the right switches and knobs, the education machine will finally start working.  They think we just need more accountability, or better tests, or better teacher training, or better professional development, or later start times, or free school breakfasts, or more classes, or fewer classes, or more tests, or more projects, or this, or that, or name the next fifty trends yet to come.

None of it will make a sizable dent if we continue to ignore the human element.  You can’t just flip a switch and suddenly motivate an apathetic student.  Apathy is a deeply rooted, poisonous, cynical, disengaged view of life and of its purpose, often bred in children at an early age and over a long period of time.  It embeds itself in the mind and heart and doesn’t just skip out when the right teacher comes along.  It has multiple causes, some brought on by the individual, some inflicted upon him.  But once rooted, it’s a human problem, even a spiritual one perhaps, and will take intense work on those levels to eradicate it.  I hate apathy.  It’s my archenemy.

But the HEX crowd likes to spout meaningless phrases and buzzwords as the answers to complex problems like apathy.  For example, one of their favorite solutions is “student engagement.”  They tout this as one of the most important goals for a teacher.  In a class with high expectations, they say, all students are engaged.  Not true.

The truth is, in a class where all students are engaged, all students are engaged.  It means nothing more than that.

If I do an activity where my students spend a week making periodic tables out of yarn and glue, you can bet they’ll all be engaged.  They won’t learn a blasted thing for the week, but they’ll be darn well engaged.  Engagement is meaningless without content, challenge, work, and demonstration of learning.

Further, I can have expectations in the stratosphere, but if a student gives up, the student gives up.  If 33 out of 34 of my students are engaged, but one has given up, does that mean I don’t have high expectations anymore?  No, it means one student has given up.  And to get him back on the horse, it will take more than platitudes about standards and motivation.

It is an epic challenge, greater than almost any imaginable, to turn around a student who has lost hope in life, or been let down by too many people, or has let too many people down and been kicked out of too many schools for having a rotten attitude and treating people like scum (yes, some students fit this description–don’t sugarcoat it and say they don’t–think for example of the four teens who beat the “Tuba Man” to death in Seattle a couple years ago...two of them went to my school).

There are dozens and dozens of reasons students lose desire for learning.  And none of them have anything to do with standards or high expectations.  And you won’t fix the problem with those things.  You’ll just make a lot of teachers that much more frustrated, and lot of students (the ones who are motivated and will pass all the lame standardized tests you throw at them) that much more annoyed.

So when I mention these examples of students who act out and disrespect their teachers, and I hear, “They’re just teenagers!,” I have one question in reply:

What happened to your high expectations?  It seems the HEX crowd has no limit to high academic expectations.  But try to get them to put some real mustard into high behavioral expectations, and they run for the silent hills.

Why don’t we have high behavioral expectations?  Why is it ever okay to swear at a teacher? Ever! Why is it ever okay to do any of the dozens of totally disrespectful behaviors that happen all the time in schools these days?  Forty years ago the rebellious student chewed gum and passed notes when the teacher wasn’t looking.  Today, I’m a crazy fool when I expect a student to keep his cell phone out of sight during class, and I’m downright offensive for having the gall to not let a student visit the bathroom in the middle of a class discussion.  I mean, really.  Who am I to ignore nature’s call (which comes via text now, and has to be answered instantly)?

So I don’t want to hear about your high expectations.  Not until you start listening to mine.  I’ll talk about some of mine under Reason #4 in a subsequent post.  Check back for the continuation of this series.

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