The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
There isn't an education reformer alive who doesn't profess high expectations for schools and children. But scratch the surface of their rhetoric, and you'll find that some of them have expectations that are really quite low. A few examples:
- Low Expectations for Assessments. Many state tests are lousy. For some reformers, though, lousy is good enough to determine the fate of teachers and students alike.
- Low Expectations for Curriculum. Foreign language has all but disappeared from elementary schools. High school research papers have been a rarity for years. But c'mon--What can you expect at a time when we have to boost scores on those lousy math and reading tests?
- Low Expectations for Policymakers. It's just way too expensive to level the economic and social playing field for poor children. We can gush over the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), but you just can't expect policymakers to strengthen poor communities. We might as well expect schools alone to do the job.
- Low Expectations for Kids. We'd love to help poor students become creative, inventive, sophisticated thinkers, but we have to focus on academic triage because resources are scarce. All that other stuff seems pretty touchy feely, anyway.
Realists can object that starry-eyed talk of better tests, curriculum and social policies is naive: We can't just abandon the tests we've got. It's very hard to define or measure things like creativity. We don't have the money for an HCZ in every city, town and village. And we can't let dreams of a rich curriculum crowd out the very real need to boost literacy.
But how does all that jive with our urgent rhetoric about school improvement? We live in a flat world, remember? Creativity, innovation and deep knowledge are the new coin of the realm. Phonics and multiplication tables are foundations, not aspirations. If this is all true, then why don't we go whole hog on better assessments, curricula, support for poor communities--and many other things besides?
Perhaps the administration's support for better assessments and a network of "Promise Neighborhoods" modeled on HCZ offers a glimmer of hope. But even these can succumb to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Really good tests are awfully expensive to create and grade. And we can't really reproduce everything, or even most things, HCZ does, because that would be political suicide these days. So we dilute our best ideas and then try to work magic with incentives and governance structures.
But the rhetoric of high expectations will remain. It's far more resilient than the reality.
Oh well. Better get those reading and math scores up.
[Picture credit: Kevin Dooley]
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