Monday, April 13, 2009

Great Expectations

One tenet of education that I've grappled with ever since I began my graduate program three years ago is the belief in high expectations for all students. There was a study done that all new teachers hear about. It goes something like this: Once upon a time there were some researchers who wanted to see if teacher expectations influenced student learning. So they took some teachers and gave them dumb students (i.e. had low test scores), but told them they were good. And they took some other teachers and gave them good students (i.e. had high test scores) and told them they were dumb. The result? You guessed it: the dumb kids performed better than the smart kids, controlling for all questions you might have about the validity of the study, of course. The idea is that if you, as a teacher, believe that all students can rise to the same standards you hold your "best" students to, all of your students will.

The first time you hear about this high expectations thing, you think, "Hey, yea, of course. That makes sense. Why wouldn't you hold all of your students to high expectations." This is especially true for teachers who work in urban schools where students come to school with a lack of respect for education and teachers, which is the atmosphere I've spent my career in thus far. So as you progress more into your teaching, a couple of things happen. First of all, you get burned out. After weeks and months of keeping your head above water your first few years (when you have to remind yourself why you subjected yourself to this torture in the first place), it's hard to remember to hold all of your kids to high expectations when more than half of them refuse to even attempt homework and think cussing at their teacher is an appropriate thing to do. (Of course not all schools have this kind of culture - this has merely been my experience thus far.) Secondly, you collect many of your students' homework and realize that by holding these students to "high expectations" (i.e. the same standards you might hold your brightest students to) does them a disservice since they sincerely lack the skills to rise to the level you expect them to, and therefore shutdown as a result. Lastly, you discover that holding your students to high expectations in terms of their academic achievement and their behavior is lots of hard work, more than you thought. As a result, the whole high expectations thing gets moved down your list of priorities when you have to create a wheelbarrow of lesson plans and grade a truckload of homework, papers, and tests; not to mention the IEP meetings, the calls home to parents, the tutoring students after school, the advising of clubs you signed up for at the beginning of the year when you thought you were superman and were too naive to say no, the keeping up with attendance, and the paperwork/coursework you have to do to stay on track with your professional development plan. By this time you completely forgot about that study you learned about as a new teacher and when someone reminds you of holding high expectations, this time you think, "Are you crazy? Have you met my kids?"

So how does one reconcile the reality and the theory? This is a conundrum I've thought a great deal about. Thus far I've come to two conclusions (certainly subject to change).

Number one: Holding all students to high expectations academically cannot mean expecting that they will all be capable of the same quality of work. Academically, holding students to high expectations means assessing their strengths and weaknesses and holding them accountable for improvement at their own pace. In other words, all students need different "high" expectations - push them to progress at the level they're at.

Number two: In terms of student behavior, there is some degree of truth in what I said about academic achievement in its application to student behavior. However, because I believe that students have a better collective understanding of what type of behavior is appropriate at school than they have a collective understanding of, say, how to be great writers, I believe that teachers have more leeway in expecting all students to act like well-mannered adults. However, as I learn to be a truly positive authority figure who consistently expects students to act like well-mannered adults, the more I come to the conclusion that public schools do not have the resources to truly hold all students to high expectations. Holding expectations as an educator does not simply mean waiting for kids to act the way you want them to. It means providing incentives and consequences for adherence and deviation for those expectations. So when I have a student who acts up in class and first I give them a warning, second have a talking with them after class, third call their parents, fourth conference with the principal with/about them, fifth have them suspended, and their behavior does not change, then it seems clear to me that this educational environment is not working for this student. They need remedial work on how to be an adult. In my mind, that means individual instruction, classes on how to act right, and possibly an alternative setting. But many of these things districts cannot afford for the amount of students who might need them. Additionally, there are those students who refuse to do work, but because they're not obnoxious about it, get off the hook in classes where teachers spend all of their time asking the obnoxious ones to be quiet and do their work. We need to expect these students to do their work and not to sleep. But I guaruntee you that if you sent all the kids who were refusing to work down to the office at any given time at my school, you'd have at least 300 kids down there. The office can't deal with that, and neither can the teachers who have them in class when there are that many of them. You can only deal with so many students at a time. So the answer is smaller class sizes and more conferencing with students. In the real world, public education simply doesn't have to money to make those things happen.

So what do you do?

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