The “high expectations” meme in school “Reform” [based on privatization of public schools, school closures, high-stakes standardized testing, etc.] has always irked me. In NOLA, it’s always smacked of not just blame but near-demonization of everyone involved in or with OPSB before 2005—the teachers “didn’t care enough,” it was corrupt, the schools were “a mess,” no one cared “if black children learned,” there was “no accountability,” etc. Because enough of the audience had no direct experience with public schools in NOLA, or had limited negative experiences, it was easy to sell the simple BAD! story about OPSB and the public schools and the people involved with both. Were they all good? Oh, no. Was it all corrupt? Not quite—I’ve wondered why “corruption” is blamed on “schools” and not administrators or contracts or subcontracts—but there was plenty of room for improvement that wasn’t necessarily solved by firing teachers and closing schools and privatizing. The teachers, the students, the buildings even, all needed help. Benign and malignant neglect were involved, and corruption on plenty of sides, not because of the racial makeup of teachers or the students or the administration at OPSB.
Oh, wait—I was talking about “expectations.”
The “We expect More” narrative seems to inherently assume that those who came before them, in classrooms and front offices and board meetings and down the block, “failed” “the children” because they didn’t “care enough” or work “hard enough.” It’s not that simple. Many people did not care, especially those who could’ve lobbied for more/better funding, real professional developemnt that helped teachers in the classrooms they had right then and there, better teacher training at and coordination with universities that treated education like a profession and academic field with best practices and researchers and not some add-on, catchall or last resort. Expectations are great and should be “high” but teachers are people, humans, not cogs or superheroes:
This strict accountability, an essential feature of NCLB, was guided by the belief that increased accountability might raise and even equalize achievement among different groups of students (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009) .
Reform High School (RHS)…was an early adopter of the Michigan Merit Curriculum [a college-prep curriculum] and implemented the new graduation requirements in 2006 instead of waiting until 2007….[H]istorically, many students (approximately 25%) [at RHS] enrolled in non-college preparatory classes .
Teachers faced the daunting task of covering the increased standards in a shorter term with a large numbers of students who were unprepared for college preparatory courses…. Teachers, such as Ms. Soloway, a veteran mathematics teacher, were unsure how to tackle the situation: “I have no strategies to teach algebra to the low-ability students.” Others, such as Mr. Wilson, adopted a business-as-usual attitude: “I teach as I always have.”…The goal of classroom instruction, according to Mr. Danielson, a biology teacher, became a race to cover all the state standards before the term ended .
The school improvement team carefully listened to the teachers’ complaints about the difficulty of covering all the state-mandated standards in a short trimester term….Members from the local educational authority (LEA), the district office, and the school met to develop power standards, defined as standards worth incorporating into instruction. RHS teachers were directed to teach only the power standards to students who were struggling in mathematics and science. In addition, the principal, feeling the pressure to make sure the school made AYP [adequate yearly progress], instructed teachers to align classroom instruction with content that would be assessed on the MME: “[T]his is what is on the ACT; this is what the state says we have to do. Teach them accordingly” .
Albeit guided by the best of intentions, administrators at RHS diagnosed the reason for the achievement gap as one of access and prescribed open access to a college preparatory curriculum as the solution. They assumed that, when provided access to challenging courses, students would rise to the occasion….While guided by good intentions, school staff members seemed oblivious to how the interaction between organizational structure, curricular standards, and instructional strategies might affect students’ opportunities to learn. Consequently, many of the changes they adopted were ad-hoc, aimed at getting quick results. These ad-hoc changes led to unintended consequences, such as re-tracking, diluting the mathematics and science content, fragmenting the curricula, and teaching to the test [27-28].
This stuff is always harder than it looks, but do you have to be inside to understand why it is so hard, and to not be taken by those who give easy answers, especially wrapped in the right color or language? A school, a class, subject, teacher, student can’t be a single multiple-choice-with-essay test or score or list of scores or a matrix used to decide the “fate” of a school. Far more support is needed than is anticipated or provided. Academic support for students—of course. But also a way to collectively address how to give students in schools all the things they need to do well and succeed [which does not mean "everyone gets an A"] and not whinging about how much it costs to feed a child breakfast or pay special ed teachers or fix the toilets or buy decent textbooks or how much teachers should be paid so the profession retains and draws the talented and the professional. So it costs money. So do Wells Fargo, General Electric, Verizon and Boeing. And they may not all be your children. And teachers may not be saints or willing or able to work 75-hour weeks and buy their students’ school supplies and snacks out of pocket. This is where the cult of selfishness and win-lose/profit-at-any-cost capitalism doesn’t work.
Bair, David, and Mary Antony Bair. “An Ethnographic Policy Analysis of a Michigan High School’s Implementation of State-Mandated Universal College Preparatory Curricula.” Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, 6 (2011): 14-31.