Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

Imagine you are a seasoned mountain climber, and are preparing to guide a group of rookies up a perilous slope. You know that before setting out on such a rigorous climb, proper training and equipment is required. Yet your group has neither. You are thus forced to either push them on, knowing that most will likely fail and many possibly risk injury or death, or hold them back and take a different climb, one that is safer and more appropriate to their level of readiness.

This is the situation we face in education today. Depending on a variety of factors, different groups of students come into school with very different levels of readiness. Like mountain climbers' training and equipment, students bring with them a set of knowledge and cognitive skills, as well as a support system at home and in their community. A student from a stable family with a solid income, college-educated parents who provide positive role-modeling and academic support at home, speak elevated language and foster a love of learning in the home, is going to be well-prepared to take on the most challenging curriculum, much more able to scale the highest academic peaks.

But a student from a broken home with low levels of income and high levels of work-related stress, a father who is not a proper role-model and a single mother without a college education or even a high school diploma, has no love of learning, keeps no reading material in the house and is unable to provide academic support, is not well-prepared for success and will struggle to climb even the lowest academic summits.

The challenge for the teacher and the school is always to meet the student where he is, and help him to be as successful as he can be. Yet in our current model, these two types of student are largely given the same education: a curriculum is adopted which targets specific standards and then provides a general plan of how to get there, with some extensions for both high and low groups of students; free and reduced lunches are provided to students from poor families; professional development and training is mandated for low-performing schools. A large amount of money is spent to test every student in order to assess the ability of each school to meet basic education requirements, however this doesn't alter the fundamental way in which children are taught in the classroom - as an assessment measure, it isn't nearly as informative as the variety of assessments teachers use in the classroom daily.

The basic classroom is still roughly the same no matter the school. One teacher, 25-35 students, all of whom are held to the same educational standards, the teacher accountable for the same outcome. Yet aside from the levels of student readiness previously mentioned, schools in different socioeconomic communities benefit from very different levels of support in the form of parent involvement and fund-raising. Higher-income families, more likely to have an intact family, are also often able to afford for one parent to stay home. These parents are invaluable supplemental resources to a school. They form PTA groups, organize special events and fund-raising activities, and help out in the classroom, offering not only tangible help to the teacher, but serving as role-models for community involvement and cohesion. The gap in liquid funds schools from different socioeconomic levels are able to raise can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The proof that the current model is not working needs not be said. But the question is: what can be done about it? Most current models of reform are based in the misguided premise that despite all of these differences, all that is needed is a classroom teacher "to do his or her job." Yet like the mountain guide, can we possibly expect them to lead groups with very different levels of readiness and support to the same outcomes? The obvious answer is to emphasize student readiness, with attention to individualized support systems.

There are ways of doing this, and while they will be more costly, they will actually be responding to the achievement gap in a way that targets real problems and is able to deliver real results, instead of pouring money into testing, accountability and training systems that do little more than show us what we already know (that the achievement gap = socioeconomic differences in human and social capital), and demeans the teaching profession by endless intervention seminars that begin with the assumption that simply through "better teaching" will students be able to be successful.

Right now we are expecting students to be successful when they are not prepared, blaming teachers for not educating them, meanwhile avoiding investing the resources in preparing students, and watching them fail in staggering numbers. A phrase invented in the early stages of the reform movement (that has now taken hold across the political spectrum) and popularized by former president G.W. Bush was, "the soft bigotry of low expectations", referring to the idea that the achievement gap persists only because teachers aren't holding their students to a high enough standard.  One could make a case that a deeper form of neglect, to the extent that failed policies of reform, founded in ignorance, are a form of soft-bigotry to the extent that they refuse to deal with underlying socioeconomic factors behind the racial achievement gap. While I wouldn't go that far, as it would be an insult to real bigotry, I would call it a tragedy. And one with real alternatives. But real reform is absent from any current agenda, either from Democrats or Republicans. And none appears on the horizon.

In the meantime, teachers at poor schools will continue to do what they have always done: be the best they can be for their students in an increasingly demeaning and thankless job. Even if at many schools this will mean watching them fall further and further behind, despite teachers' best efforts, the mantra will continue to be, "you can't save them all". There will be small successes, and in those pieces of light teachers will find the strength to return again the next day, fresh faced and ready to make a difference. They will know that most of their students won't be going to college. But their expectations will remain what it always has: that they do their best to help each student do the best they can. And they can be proud of that.

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