The Bigotry of Low Expectations

Posted: October 18, 2012 in Arizona Politics, Discrimination, Education, K-12, Racism, Ugliness American Style
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The Florida Board of Education’s has approved new race-based academic standards.

The plan calls for different levels of academic achievement with 90% of Asian students, 88% of Caucasians, 81% of Hispanics and 74% of African-Americans to be at or above grade reading level by the year 2018. Math standards have been set at 92% of Asian students, 86% of Caucasians, 80% of Hispanics and 74% of African-Americans to be at or above their math grade level.

Children (and most adults) frequently achieve to the level of our expectations. If we want them to perform crappy, they will. U.S. schools have previously been (and many still are) guilty of simply passing students to get them out of the classroom regardless of what their actual skill level.  There was always one person in your grade that was a year or two older because they just couldn’t progress.  I mean, who wants to have a 17 year old mixed in with 14 year old’s, right?  So instead of the fixing the real underlying problems, Florida is simply changing the way others will perceive student achievement and lowering expectations for students.  The only problem with this is that it won’t actually improve actual outcomes.

In 2008 Chris Hedges of reported that:

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year.

Those who study and report on education in the U.S. have been hammering on our problems for decades to no avail.  On average students in the U.S. from 2005-2009 were preforming at a B level (or 3.00 out of a 4.00 GPA scale which is in the range of 80%-89%).   Sounds pretty good except for the fact that if that’s the average, then does that mean minority groups won’t have to perform to that level any more?  Seems to me that the B grade average is not what FL is now expecting of Hispanic and African American students.  Isn’t it more likely that those students will perform to the level of expectation which would be 80% or 74% of the previous average? If students do what we know human beings do, which is to do the bare minimum required of them, then Hispanics will only perform in a range of 64%-71% and African Americans in a range of 59%-66%.  I’m not saying that minority groups are lazy I’m saying that all human beings perform to expectations–see info on the “Pygmalion Effect” here.  These new standards let the students know that they are expected to be less intelligent and therefore score less and I predict that is exactly what they will get.  Here are some of the conclusions on how expectations realistically affect student outcomes:

  1. 5-10% of variance in student performance is attributable to differential treatment accorded them based on their teachers’ differential expectations of them
  2. the way in which expectations are communicated to students–the entire school has to be consistent and the standards must drive everything the school does
  3. Communicating low expectations has more power to limit student achievement than communicating high expectations has to raise student performance
  4. Students notice and internalize negatively when teachers treat students differently, particularly when the teachers beliefs are based on incorrect data (i.e., African American students are dumber therefore they can’t achieve as much)
  5. Teachers will provide less interesting material and less learning material in general to students that they expect less from

It’s not just the lowered expectations that’s so disappointing.  The fact that we’re not addressing the other underlying problems, particularly those where we can make a difference, is incredibly frustrating.  Mainly it is because the underlying problems remain not only systemic in our education system but throughout our society as well.  But just because a problem is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address it.  Here are some of the things we can change that do affect student outcomes in a significant fashion:

  • Poverty and hungry kids do not make good students. What can we do about that? Make sure that every kid gets fed the proper amount when they are in school. You say we already do that? Au contraire mon frere. Remember the post I wrote about the High School football players in GA that just couldn’t complete standard football workouts because they were so hungry? Why on earth would that be happening if school food programs were adequate? If welfare was available and sufficient for families to get them through tough times? The coach fixed the problem by feeding them for the cost of $3 per day per student. His team went on to win the state championship. Amazing what a little food and the ability to concentrate can do for students.
  • Safe and supportive before/after school programs.  Yet another socioeconomic factor but still something we can affect.  We have several options.  Make school last longer and line up with a year round 8 to 5 work schedule. Or, increased public subsidizing of before/after school programs for families that make below a certain amount per year (or scaled costs based on family income).  Lack of affordable childcare options is one of the biggest problems facing struggling families in the U.S.  And if kids aren’t safe, they can’t do their homework, they’re stressed out, and they’re unsupervised–all these things are recipes for disaster (and I say this as having been a latch key kid, so I know first hand)
  • Consistent pre-school preparation for all children regardless of income level.  Again, this would require increased investments in program like Head Start.  The upper-middle and upper classes can afford private pre-schools with low teacher to student ratios and a set curricula.  Traditional Head Start programs, while not exactly like the private ones, has a very significant impact on preparing children for kindergarten and giving them the “head start” they need to succeed academically.
  • School size — Figure out what is ideal and plan for that.  If that takes more investment, so be it.
  • Teacher to student ratios need to be reduced
  • Leverage technology in those areas where it actually helps and provides efficiency without affecting quality
  • Comprehensive Teacher Evaluations that do not rely too heavily on student outcomes (this was one of the factors in the recent Chicago Teacher’s Strike but it really affects every teacher in the U.S.).  It’s ludicrous to hold a teacher in a poor school district with a heterogeneous student population, high crime and drug abuse rates, low funding and few supplies to the same standard as a teacher in a rich school district with a homogeneous student population, low crime and drug abuse rates, ample funding and ample supplies.  The first teacher can hardly overcome all the negative influences her student will face.  They’re not on a level playing field and we need to stop pretending that they are.  That doesn’t mean we lower expectations for that teacher or that school district.  It means that Teacher Evaluations take those things into account and they use other measures of effectiveness.  Did they cover the material required? Do they have a good working relationship with other teachers, administrators and community representatives?  Do they have healthy relationships with their students?  Do students feel that they are encouraged and supported (in spite of the challenges that a school may itself face)?  Have they kept up to date with information in their fields?  How creative have they been?  What improvements have they tried to make in their presentation style and/or techniques?  How much homework are they giving and what this the quality of that homework?  Do the homework assignments reinforce what is learned in the classroom?  How long does it take to grade assignments and how well do they communicate grading to the student?  How long and in what ways do they communicate with inquiries by parents, students, administrators, etc?  Do they participate in other non-class related school activities like official sports, rallies, book drives, charity drives, extracurricular sports, etc, etc.
  • Educate parents on how to be supportive of their kids in school–what resources are there for them, what do the schools expect from the parent and what happens if they don’t comply, what ways can the school adjust to the parents’ schedules.  They can’t support their kids if they’ve never been taught how to do that.  I’ve had to figure it out on my own but it would have been nice if I had parents who were engaged and supportive.  I didn’t have that and I’ve had to take the initiative.  I have the luxury of doing that because I have a nice white collar, middle class job.  But not all parents are capable of taking the initiative and the time off of work to do what an involved parent should do. Some parents need prompting–they need help.  Find creative ways for those kinds of parents to participate, to be included and to learn how to be a supportive parent.  And if the school can’t get the parent to be supportive, look for ways to motivate and help their child succeed in spite of their parents lack of interest.  Sometimes this means helping the parent get their GED or giving them information on going to college, etc.  Sometimes to help the child, you have to help the parent with their education.  Schools that provide classrooms and teachers for adult ed GED programs are also helping their K-12 students too.
  •  Coping with the heterogeneous nature of American society.   If you want everyone to speak English (as so many conservative yutzes do), then you have to teach the kids.  That’s what ESL does and too many states have underfunded it in violation of the law (Arizona I’m looking at you).  You can’t just throw kids into English-speaking classes and expect them to sink or swim.  They will fall behind, they will feel “less than” and we will be creating an underclass of the uneducated, non-English speaking, poor who have no opportunity to advance up the social ladder.

So we can make improvements that affect student learning instead of lowering expectations that only make the schools and government look better statistically speaking.  Can’t we just invest in those things that actually work and allow minority students (indeed all students) to achieve the same standards nationwide? I want students to shoot for the A+ because you can be damn sure that China is making that happen. It’s not just a moral issue, it’s an economic and sociopolitical one. Without an educated and informed populous we will not be able to compete in the global economy. Even more dangerous is the fact that democracy cannot survive with voters who can’t read the ballot or understand the issues. We HAVE to get education right because our country’s future depends on it.  And yes it’s expensive but it’s worth it.  We just have to stop planning for next year and start planning for 10, 20, 30 years down the line.

Links on Illiteracy:


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