The elections are finally behind us, with education reform still on the national agenda. Thank goodness. The United States remains the only developed country with no coherent national education policy, and with woefully inadequate funding of our public schools.
President Obama’s first term was marked by his Race to the Top program, offering competitive grants as incentives to states and school districts for implementing a host of reforms. The jury is still out whether these reforms will have the intended impact of improving education, and specifically closing huge gaps in opportunity and achievement across the country.
I have worked for more than two decades with parents and schools, and am perplexed that we tiptoe around a sure route to closing this gap: high expectations. Too many schools simply do not expect much from their students.
The frequent argument of educators is that it’s impossible to expect a lot when they are faced with 35 students in a class and little planning time. At the high school level, most schools are structured so that teachers typically see over 100 students per week. In low-income communities, the additional challenges of poverty make high expectations a pipe dream, some would say.
Yet, I have been in public schools where expectations were high, and seen the positive results. I visited one high school in Boston shortly after it was divided into small learning communities. On one floor of the building, the program director told me, “We expect every one of our students to be able to go on to higher education. They have to if they’re going to make it these days, and our job is to prepare them.” I dutifully headed up the stairs to the next floor, where that program’s director told me point blank, “Let’s face it, these kids are not going to college. We have to be realistic about that.”
I’ve been doing book talks over the past six months in a number of cities, as well as consulting and training nationally. In virtually every setting, I hear the same refrain from parents of color: “I had to go in and review my son’s grades with his teacher to get her to see that he should be placed in the high performing group. She was ready to hold him back, even though nothing in his schoolwork pointed to this.” The consistency of this complaint is frightening.
And what’s particularly frightening is that the patterns rarely appear to be deliberate or conscious. When these concerns are raised in “mixed” (parent-teacher) company, the teachers in the room frequently become defensive. I understand that teachers feel under inordinate attack these days. I also understand that we all have biases that we are not aware of. Studies show that roughly half of Americans purport to hold anti-black and anti-Latino biases. The percentage that demonstrates implicit bias, defined as “unconscious prejudices” is even higher. Until we are willing to examine and confront these prejudices, we will continue to treat people differently — in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.
What does this mean for educational policy, and for the Obama administration’s commitment to addressing educational inequities?
One of the barriers to raising educational expectations is that it doesn’t readily lend itself to measurement. You can’t easily measure what’s in a teacher’s mind when she expects less of her students of color. However, research has identified a set of factors that are consistently present in high poverty schools that have high academic achievement rates. It’s time to fund such factors.
Many studies have identified and analyzed high-poverty, high-performing schools. Yes, such schools exist. The Education Trust, a national organization working to close the gaps in educational opportunity and achievement, identified over 4,500 such public schools serving over 2 million students across the United States in 2001.
The research found a number of factors these schools had in common, starting with high expectations. They had rigorous and challenging curricula, a high level of shared planning time among teachers to coordinate their work, and high levels of parent involvement. These schools maintained a safe and positive environment. They used ongoing feedback on student performance to constantly make adjustments. And they had strong leadership and committed teachers. The research found that these factors worked together, and lost their impact if some but not all were in place.
Maybe we can’t measure everything that matters to improving educational outcomes. But if evidence shows something works, we can support it. The federal government should fund and reward the set of practices that have demonstrated results, even in the most challenging schools. This is not rocket science.