Standards Commentary

Outsider in the Locker Room

By William A. Proefriedt — December 05, 2006 8 min read

In the current education reform movement, we try again to make bricks without straw. We pretend that schools and their students exist within a social and economic vacuum. The standards reformers do not simply neglect socioeconomic forces in formulating their policies; they argue that those who appeal to such forces make excuses for poor students and thereby do them harm. They have devised a marvelously effective rhetoric denouncing “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and repeating the mantra of “no excuses.”

Much of the present discourse of school reform may be usefully compared to the words of a college football coach in the locker room, between the halves of a game in which his team is down 28-0.

The central component of the standards approach is the insistence on high expectations for students and for those who work in the schools. Set the expectations, hold students and school people accountable with periodic testing, and you will bring out their best efforts. As everyone works up to high standards, individuals ensure their economic success, and the nation survives and prospers in the world marketplace. A time frame is set up with the necessity of improved scores each year among all categories of students. The centerpiece of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act is that subgroups—African-American, Asian, Latino, Native-American, white, limited-English-proficient, low-income, and students with disabilities—must show the same progress as all other students for a school to be listed as making adequate yearly progress. A district that shows 40 percent of its students as proficient on standardized tests this year will keep improving by regular intervals each year until, in 2014, 100 percent—every last one of its students—will demonstrate proficiency. All of this is to be accomplished solely through attention to individuals and schools.


How do we account for this self-deception and illusory thinking? Firstly, we fool ourselves with careless language. America’s public schools, we hear, ought to provide equal educational opportunity to all, will provide it, or do provide it. Educational rhetoric often skips merrily over some important distinctions. Audiences, for their own reasons, do not listen carefully and are left with the sense that all is well, that equality of educational opportunity has been achieved. While we acknowledge the differences in expenditures among school districts, we resist dramatic change. We don’t take seriously the impact of parental economic status on student test scores. We pretend it doesn’t matter that there are dramatic differences in income and wealth in the society from which the students have come and into which they will be moving.

Statements like “all children can learn if only they are held to high standards” have an inspirational quality to them. They are proclaimed in contexts that are unlikely to generate critical questions. Much of the present discourse of school reform may be usefully compared to the words of a college football coach in the locker room, between the halves of a game in which his team is down 28-0. The coach will appeal to the players’ desire to win, and urge them to redouble their efforts. He will tell them that no matter how badly things seem to be going, if each one gives his absolutely best effort, the team will be triumphant.

It would be utterly inappropriate for an outsider in the locker room to say aloud that the team will be lucky if it can score a touchdown, and hold the other fellows to 50 points; or to note that the other team is better coached, larger, more talented, and better conditioned. An outsider who said the team should play the game with the realistic sense that little good will likely come of it would be unwelcome indeed.

We should not say the coach, in his pep talk, deceived his players. To do so would be to misunderstand the context in which the coach is operating. He is inspiring his team to make its best effort. He may have made some shaky truth claims as part of his talk. He may have spoken cynically; more likely, and more effectively if so, he believed everything he said when he said it. Importantly, every once in a while, the unlikely upset occurs. The home team, badly mismatched, nevertheless pulls off a victory. That is the story we love to hear and tell. The outsider bringing gloom to the locker room is unlikely to contribute to a winning outcome; hence, he is not welcome.

Let us shift from the locker room to a scene in central Brooklyn. A superintendent speaks to a meeting of her principals. For years, she has been involved in the standards reform movement. She has complied with state curriculum standards; she has developed programs for teachers, training them to prepare students for standardized tests; she has organized summer school classes for students who did poorly on these tests. She is familiar with state and federal laws and regulations relating to curriculum, testing, and the impact of test scores on individuals and schools in her district. There have been some bright spots with the tests, but too many of her schools are labeled “needs improvement.”

Our district superintendent asks principals whose students showed improved scores to share their best practices with the other principals. She speaks movingly about “our children” and about our responsibilities toward them. She reminds all present that there are some who don’t believe these children can succeed, but says that she, and she hopes, they, will never give up.

Much good may be done in this district during the school year, partly through the efforts of the superintendent and principals and the teachers who work in the schools. The superintendent, though, has looked at a state report showing the differences in scores between her district and districts in the northern part of the borough of Queens, and in suburbs out along the North Shore of Nassau County.

What we leave out is that individuals and schools do not function in social and economic vacuums, and that holding out high expectations is necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand.

She has not elected to pass on the score differences at this meeting. She may not allow such information to enter her consciousness while she speaks. She attributes the few victories on test scores in her district to the good work of her principals. She is like the weekend gambler in Atlantic City who tells his family only about the day he hit the slots for a $3,000 payout and neglects to speak of the accumulated losses he has suffered over the years.

The superintendents, the principals, and the teachers form a team with a shared purpose: the success of their students, and hence their own success as educators. This is their life’s work, and why would they not want to believe in their own efficacy? Some of them have driven to work from homes in those areas with better test scores and seen the changing quality of the real estate as they drove. If these perceptions are registered, they are rarely connected to the educational outcomes of the students, and if the connections are made they are certainly not voiced. Self-deception does not require cynicism.

Yet, the educators, like other parents, do know these connections exist. Many of them have moved out of neighborhoods such as the ones they teach in to more economically privileged areas, or have sent their children to private schools. We not only repress information; we can know when it is useful for us to know, and not know when it is necessary to alleviate our anxiety. We can then ask students and teachers in poorer neighborhoods to go out and play their hearts out in the second half of the game when they are down 28-0. It’s a wonderful story. No one wishes to challenge it. That’s why we don’t invite outsiders into the locker room.

Shift the scene to a wealthier school district. Its superintendent meets with parents and informs them that over 95 percent of students in the district scored at the proficiency level or better on the state’s standardized tests for that year, and that 78 percent of SAT test-takers scored at a level of 1150 or better. Ninety-three percent of last year’s graduating class is attending college. She lists the number of graduates matriculating at various elite institutions. She talks about the care with which new teachers are selected, the success that two of the science teachers have had in preparing students for the Intel scholarship program. She points to the large number of students in the high school who are pursuing Advanced Placement courses. She thanks the parents for their support and encouragement of their own children, and their willingness to ratify increases in the district’s budget. She concludes by speaking of the hard work and dedication of the students themselves, citing one, an immigrant who had arrived here at age 13, mastered English quickly, and then, by dint of her own hard work, her parents’ support, and the commitment of numerous faculty members, won a full scholarship to Harvard.

The teachers are, indeed, a dedicated and talented lot. The high salaries offered by the district allow it to recruit an excellent faculty. The schools’ programs are first-rate. The superintendent does not mention that other districts with similar parental incomes produce equally admirable results. It is in everyone’s interest to believe that the high standards the school has set, the parents’ support, and the hard work of staff members and students in responding to those standards explain the district’s success. Parents find it anxiety-provoking to think that the success of their own children is linked to the very economic status they sought in moving to the district, and that other people’s children are excluded from the same opportunities.

Much information about the world we live in has to be at once known and unknown, repressed, forgotten, unexpressed, in order for us to carry around our ideals of equal opportunity and, at the same time, settle for the vast economic inequalities in our society we replicate in our schooling. We tell ourselves a wonderful story. What we leave out is that individuals and schools do not function in social and economic vacuums, and that holding out high expectations is necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Outsider in the Locker Room

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