School & District Management Opinion

Education Investments Reflect Expectations

By David B. Cohen — December 24, 2014 5 min read
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The power of expectations is well known and often discussed among educators. We see the evidence in multiple studies on the effects of expectations, and hear it in educators’ references to students as “scholars” in general, or as “scientists” and “writers” when appropriate. Schools try to embed those expectations in students by making college an explicit goal in early elementary grades, placing college pennants and posters all over schools, and beginning college field trips well before high school.

While the “college for all” mantra has been subject to debate, I certainly believe that students graduating from a public high school should have a set of skills and dispositions that will serve them well in careers and in continuing education. For most adults, work and education will likely alternate and overlap over the years anyway. Schools and teachers then have a variety of messages to impart to students during their time in the system, and our expectations should be reflected not only in our words, but also in robust curricular pathways with stimulating curriculum and highly effective pedagogy.

However, in many communities, students and parents might be forgiven for doubting whether our stated expectations are sincere. Educators might say and do everything in their power to convey one set of expectations, but a different set of civic expectations may be revealed in the inadequate supports we provide. We tell students their education and their future matters, but if they can see the infrastructure crumbling around them, our words are empty. If we double up their test prep while saying we can’t afford course offerings that engage hearts and minds, and continue to neglect necessities like libraries and counselors, then it’s clear that high expectations only apply to some students, in some communities.

However, on a recent visit to La Quinta High School (south of Palm Springs, CA), I had an opportunity to see a physical manifestation of high expectations for all students. I spent most of my day observing English teacher Stephanie Smith, who was a student of mine years ago. As expected, that part of my visit was particularly gratifying, if not a bit disorienting at first: someone I’ve known best as a high school freshman is now a veteran teacher, a peer, and about the same age I was when I was her teacher. But after observing all of Stephanie’s classes for the day, I had time to visit some school facilities that left me impressed with the way that the school and community have transformed expectations into actions and resources.

The school has a variety of pathways students can choose, ranging from the well-known International Baccalaureate program, to a set of career pathways designed by the school. There are several pathways to choose from, but I only had the chance to learn about two of them firsthand, talking to teachers and visiting facilities.

I began this part of my day with a tour of the marvelous new building for the Culinary Arts Academy. There is no doubt about expectations for students when you see the state-of-the-art facilities for this program. There’s a classroom kitchen, which looks like media studio and gourmet kitchen at the same time. In the picture at left, you can see a professional quality gas range and exhaust hood. There’s ample preparation space on both sides, with mirrors above to make the chef’s work visible to the audience - I mean, class. The windows at the left side of the picture show the control room for audio and video feeds.

Then, in the main kitchen, there are rows and rows of everything a professional kitchen needs, including top quality appliances, kitchenware, utensils and cutlery, spices, and three walk in refrigerators and freezers stocked with ingredients; overall, the facility is the envy of more than a few local chefs and restauranteurs, according to teacher Shari Tucker.

The region has a high demand for workers in culinary arts and restaurant management, and the students in this program have multiple years to develop skills and earn a certification putting them on track for careers in this field, if they don’t choose to go to college right after high school. Tucker has also helped top students in the program compete in state and national competitions, where they have been quite successful in recent years.

Another career pathway option at La Quinta is the Medical Health Academy, housed in another new building adjoining the Culinary Arts program. Downstairs, the building has a weight room and exercise center, but I went directly to the upstairs classrooms. There I saw wide open spaces to accomodate large classes and lots of movement; the floor plan would allow students to move easily from presentations and lectures, to flexible work spaces suitable for groups, and to actual medical “bays” similar to what you’d see in a clinic or emergency room: hospital beds, wheelchairs, and equipment for basic medical exams and determining vital signs. Two teachers oversee the program, and Kathy Pederson was kind enough to show me around and answer questions. Again, it was clear that the community has invested significantly in the education and the future of these students, and provided both the quality and variety of offerings and facilities that show students how much is expected of them. These programs also caught the eye of California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, who toured La Quinta and Palm Springs High Schools earlier this year, and told The Desert Sun, “There is a relevancy that keeps [students] excited and engaged in school and give them a focus. It’s learning with a purpose.”

So, as we talk about expectations for college and career readiness, let’s look for evidence of states and districts investing in resources and programs that communicate powerfully what is really expected of students: are we providing merely the chance to raise test scores and produce grades, or are we committed to high quality, inspirational, authentic learning experiences that offer all students diverse pathways to post-secondary success?

Photos: La Quinta High School Culinary Arts classroom, and teacher Shari Tucker; by David B. Cohen
Click here to see a gallery of additional photographs from my visit to La Quinta High School.
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