Education Opinion

Toxic Expectations

By Peter Greene — November 26, 2014 7 min read
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“Expectations” seems to be having a moment, shouldering aside “grit” in the pantheon of reformster Orwellian obfuscatory baloney.

To be clear, I am a big fan of educational expectations. I learned about expectations from my chemistry teacher Joe Stewart. We would whine that he expected too much and he would say, “I know. But if I expect this [hand held above head], I will get this [hand held at eye level]. If I only expect this [hand still at eyes], I will get this [hand at chest].” All of my experience as a teacher suggests that Joe had it right.

I communicate two things to my students with expectations-- 1) I intend to hold them to a certain standard and 2) I believe in their ability to succeed. We talk in my class about the pathway to awesome, not the road to good-enough-to-get-by. Students are fond of asking questions (“How long does this have to be? How much time should I spend on this?”) that are basically reworded versions of “What’s the bare minimum I can get away with on this?” My response is some version of “You are not trying to do the bare minimum. You are trying to be awesome. Don’t settle. Be awesome.” Sometimes they want to offer some version of, “What do you expect from me? I’m dumb.” They get in return, “I see no evidence of your alleged dumbosity. I expect you to be your version of awesome.”

Okay, actually, I communicate three things. 3) I will be with you every step of the way. My role is support and guidance. On the trek up the educational mountain of excellence, I’m a sherpa. It’s my job to egg them on. It’s my job to make sure they have the supplies and support they need to get there. It’s my job to gauge their strength and ability, to know when to say, “Come on! Let’s go!” and when to say, “Let’s set up camp and rest.” It’s my job to select a goal that will stretch them but not break them.

I tell you all this so that you know that I understand the power of expectations in education. But my understanding is apparently very different from that of many reformsters.

Arne Duncan has repeatedly insisted that students with disabilities are the victims of low expectations. The state of Washington, using Duncan’s fact-free position paper as backup, insisted that

The evidence is clear that disabilities do not cause disparate outcomes, but that the system itself perpetuates limitations in expectations and false belief systems about who children with disabilities can be and how much they can achieve in their lifetime

Get that? All differences in outcomes are entirely the fault of the school. Students with learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, physical challenges-- they only have problems with school work because of the school. The blind student just has trouble seeing the PARCC questions because his teachers expect him to have trouble seeing. The student with limbs twisted by disease is unable to run a ten-minute mile because his phys ed teacher doesn’t think he can do it. And the state of Florida was correct to demand that Ethan Rediske take the Big Test even if he was profoundly disabled and dying. We can expect that all children will be exactly the same, and we are just going to expect them all into magical compliance.

But it’s not just that reformsters have imbued expectations with mystical magical qualities. Consider Erika Sanzi over at Education Post, Peter Cunningham’s $12 million PR machine. She is ruminating on events and unrest in Ferguson, and about the question of the role of education in making young people feel valued:

When I think of how a school shows that it “values” children, my mind automatically goes to the question of expectations.

Does it? Does it really first go to the question of expectations? Because when I read that sentence, my mind automatically went to the question of baloney.

Do you know how a school shows that it values children? It does it by giving them just as much support as it can muster. It makes sure they have the best physical plant that money can buy, a school with all the amenities, a nice library, a well-equipped gym, classrooms that are clean and well-lit and filled with the best new resources that can be found. It spends top dollar to get the best people in the classroom. It makes sure the school can provide every kind of support, resource and facility possible. That’s how a school shows it values children.

I am tired to the bone of reformsters claiming that expectations are all that we need, of the repeated chorus that we can’t make schools better by throwing money at them. I have an experiment for testing that. Find the school in your state with the lowest level of spending, and reduce every single school-- including the schools in the wealthy neighborhoods-- to that lowest level of spending. When parents squawk, tell them it’s okay because you are just going to load the expectations on. You are going to expectation the living daylights out of those kids and nobody is going to miss a cent of the money that was just cut, because, expectations. Try that, and get back to me.

You cannot truly deliver the expectation of success without becoming a partner in that success. You cannot help people climb the mountain without climbing it with them.

If you stand at the foot of the mountain and tell someone, “Get to the peak. Do it. I’m not going to check you out to see how high you can safely climb in one day. I’m not going to give you supplies or support, and I’m not going to help you, either. I’m just going to stay down here and expect that you’ll make it to the peak, or else,” that’s not high expectations. That’s just cruelty.

And to say to our poorest schools and communities, “You don’t need to have the same kind of money and support and resources that the rich schools get. You just need expectations” is the lamest, most ethically lazy excuse since Cain said, “Brother? Um, where? Wasn’t my day to watch him.”

There is a half-truth in the reformster argument-- it is deeply wrong to look at students and say that because they are poor or challenged, there’s no point in even trying. But it does not follow that by saying we expect them to succeed exactly like anyone else, we’re doing any better. There are two groups that are ignored in this touting of high expectations: the children who have been rescued from low expectations by readily available money and resources, and the children whose high expectations have been crushed by the poverty and societal neglect that surrounds them. Neither group is aided by expectation blather, but only one group needs additional support.

When parents discover their child has a gift, they do everything they can to support it. Lessons, equipment, trainers, teachers-- even if they have to squeeze the family budget. They don’t say, “That’s nice, child. We expect you to be awesome, but you should not expect us to help you.” There isn’t an elite private school on the planet that says, “We have classes in a moldy, rat-infested barn. There will never be a nurse here when your child is sick or a counselor here when your child is troubled. We will do nothing special to assist your child whatever her difficulties. We have no books, no computer, and no facilities outside of the crumbling classrooms. But we will have really high expectations of your child, so send him to us!”

Nor does the parable say that the Samaritan found the man beaten and lying at the side of the road and said, “I’m going to do you a huge favor. I’m going to expect you to heal yourself and get yourself out of that ditch. Good luck. I expect I’ll see you later.”

To say that children who face the obstacles of disability or poverty simply need someone to expect more-- that’s wrong in too many ways. First, it assumes that they are incapable of having expectations of their own, that they are simply idling and aimless, waiting for someone to slap them awake with a cold bucket of expectations (provided by people who know better than they what their goals should be). And second, it ignores our obligation to provide support, assistance, guidance, and even company on the climb to the mountaintop.

Expectations without investment are just empty promises and deluded dreams. They are excuses, a way to shed responsibility, to say that we have no obligation to help clear a path-- we can just sit back and expect the travelers to break their own trail, without even checking to see if they even have the tools to do it. The best expectations help show the way and light the road, but the worst are toxic, not only failing to push back obstacles, but adding the additional roadblock of Not My Problem indifference. If our students living in poverty don’t feel valued, I’m pretty sure that the low expectations of their teachers are not the most likely culprit.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.