Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

‘High Expectations’ and the Rigged Political Debate on Education

By Dan Brown — March 07, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s hard to think of an easier target for outrage than a principal bent on “dumbing down” his school. A headline on such a dishonest shortchanger of unwitting children can draw righteous indignation from just about any reader—and that’s why media outlets pounce on them.

In December, a memo by an East Harlem high school principal admonishing teachers for not getting enough of their students to pass was leaked to the New York City press. Several outlets ran with it, and the online Drudge Report linked the juicy story, presumably drawing millions of hits. The principal, Bennett Lieberman of Central Park East High School, is paying a price for being publicly labeled as a promoter of what President Bush calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The story is worth a closer look. A thoughtful analysis of Lieberman’s memo elicits much more than the knee-jerk reaction of fury and disdain.

The gist of Lieberman’s memo to his faculty reads:

“If you are not passing more than 65 percent of your students in a class, then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities, and you are setting your students up for failure, which, in turn, limits your success as a professional. If you are not reaching a 65 percent pass rate you must look at all variables, including homework policy, homework amount, grading policies, and type of instruction you are presenting and whether it is accessible to your students. I would like to remind you that unless you are scaffolding your instruction and working through your assignments with your students, as opposed to simply assigning and expecting work, you will not be getting back quantity or quality.

“Most of our students come from the lowest third percentile in academic achievement, have difficult home lives, and struggle with life in general. They DO NOT have a similar upbringing nor a similar school experience to our experiences growing up. We must all remember this as we work with them and for them to make them successful.”

If you have worked in schools and seen kids pushed day after day beyond their frustration level, mandated to do work above their capabilities, you know that Principal Lieberman’s words have some merit. He goes wrong in emphasizing the stats that he wants, but he is working within a system—exacerbated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—that patently puts statistics and numbers above flesh-and-blood students’ needs.

Lieberman is right that every child should feel successful in school. However, it’s a reality that many students for many reasons come into school with below-grade-level skills. The system’s insistence on uniform “high expectations” (code for “everyone must pass the grade-level-standards test”) does a tragic disservice to children in need of specialized academic support. It leaves them behind. The solution is not merely passing them or testing them to death, but assessing students’ needs, meeting them, and pushing them forward.

The frustration of one’s inability to measure up within an indifferent institution is a major reason that kids check out or drop out.

If a boy reads three levels below his grade level, he shouldn’t be made to feel like a failure in every lesson. If a girl has trouble with her times tables, forcing advanced algebra on her is not a solution. The resulting frustration of one’s inability to measure up within an indifferent institution is a major reason that kids check out or drop out.

The traditional 25-to-30-students, one-teacher classroom simply doesn’t meet many students’ needs, and the empty exhortation of “I have high expectations for all students” is a pathetic compensation for the crucial missing infrastructure to support struggling children.

How can a student reach the penthouse without an elevator key? We’re dubiously telling that student to fly to the top floor. We say we expect him to get there, but our system shrugs at the vital investments (smaller class size, more academic-support services, a greater initiative to retain experienced teachers, to name a few) to bring that student up. Of course, reforms beyond the school walls are also necessary to improve students’ lives and achievement.

No Child Left Behind may be out of vogue—“[It] may be the worst brand in America,” according to House Education Committee Chairman George Miller—but we still seem bound by NCLB’s core ideology that touting “high expectations” and decrying anything else as bigotry is the only viable course. The outrage over Principal Lieberman’s hot-button memo is a case in point.

Lieberman may have set off a political firestorm within his school with his memo, but perhaps a thoughtful discussion can result about how to break free from catchphrases and accountability models that impose damaging, unrealistic “expectations.” We must look carefully at how we value students and how we are unintentionally punishing them.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession The State of Teaching Black Teachers Have the Highest Morale. Why?
Black teachers view the job more positively, exclusive survey data show. How can schools hold onto them?
8 min read
Tyler Wright teaches 4th grade math at Stono Park Elementary School in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 18, 2022. Charleston County, like other places across the country, is working to increase the number of Black male teachers in the classroom.
Tyler Wright teaches 4th grade math at Stono Park Elementary School in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 18, 2022. Charleston County, like other places across the country, is working to increase the number of Black male teachers in the classroom.
Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP
Teaching Profession Should Class Feel Like Entertainment? Teachers Have Mixed Feelings
Teachers on social media give their opinions on whether entertaining is a necessary part of their job.
4 min read
An eighth-grade math teacher demonstrates a lesson called “math golf.”
An eighth-grade math teacher demonstrates a lesson called “math golf.”
Allison Shelley for All4Ed
Teaching Profession Teachers’ Careers Go Through Phases. They Need Support in Each
Teachers experience a dip in job satisfaction a few years into their careers.
5 min read
Vector illustration of a female teacher at her desk with her head in her hands. There are papers, stacked notebooks, and a pen on the desk and a very light photo of a blurred school hallway with bustling students walking by in the background.
iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Download Downloadable: 5 Ways Principals Can Help With Teacher Burnout
This downloadable gives school leaders and teachers various ways to spot and treat teacher burnout.
1 min read
Silhouette of a woman with an icon of battery with low charge and icons such as a scribble line, dollar sign and lightning bolt floating around the blue background.
Canva