Thursday, December 27, 2007

High expectations? Or what??

Those of us in education frequently hear about the importance of having high expectations for our kids. I'd even say that it has become somewhat of a cliche. I just finished reading A Class Apart, Alec Klein's book about Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The back cover of the book features an endorsement by Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education columnist, who tells us that Klein's conclusions about this very elite public high school "have meaning for public schools everywhere." Well, guess what the very first of those conclusions is? That's right! Klein concludes that other public schools could learn from Stuyvesant by having high expectations for our kids.

Having high expectations sounds so good, but because of policies that have been imposed on public schools, it is a concept that lacks meaning for many of us. Having high expectations for the highly motivated kids in a school like Stuyvesant, that only allows the top three percent of all the kids who want to go there, is one thing. Having high expectations for all those kids who have to go to the rest of our public schools, whether they want to be there or not, is another.

It seems to me that "expectations," regardless of how high they are, have to be accompanied by an "or what?" In other words, if someone doesn't meet those expectations, what will happen? If someone is hired for a job there are expectations that the person will come to work regularly, be on time, and perform certain required duties. If the person fails to do those things, the "or what?" is that the person won't have that job for very long.

Of all the people I've known in education, the one who best exemplified having "high expectations" was Cary Eades, who was our school's head hockey coach for eleven years. More than anything else, those high expectations were for effort and mental alertness. Cary, who is now an associate head coach at the University of North Dakota, is a brilliant coach, but he is also one of the most intimidating people I've ever known. Cary's high expectations were met so often by his players, at least in part, because those players knew there would be hell to pay, in one way or another, if they weren't. His glare, alone, was enough to make a grown man wilt. If that didn't work, there was always the bench, and in a couple of rare instances, players were dismissed from the team. Cary refused to accept lame excuses, and as a result, he consistently got the most out of his players and his teams.

There are a lot of differences between athletics and classrooms, and teachers certainly need to have tolerance for kids in our classrooms with lesser abilities. Nevertheless, many of us do want to have high expectations for effort and behavior, but we are limited in our ability to do that. I mean, what will be the "hell to pay" if kids don't meet our expectations. They might get sent to a learning centers for kids with "alternative learning styles," or they might be given some sort of label, so we can set them up with IEPs and they can more easily get credit for their classes. For some kids, those labels are legitimate and the IEPs are appropriate, but for others, I'm not so sure.

The desire to save every kid--to leave no child behind--is a noble one, but I think it does far more harm than good. There are a number of kids in my classes who I KNOW could perform much better than they are, and I have no doubt that there are thousands of high school teachers across America who see the same type of thing. I have argued again and again that teachers should have the authority to remove kids who won't try and won't behave from our classes. I firmly believe that we would be doing the vast majority of non-performers a great favor by doing this, because they would perform if they thought they had to. I don't know how many times I've seen non-performers suddenly begin to perform because they faced a meaningful "or what?" Perform, or you won't be able to play football; perform, or you won't be able to get your driver's license; perform, or your parent will take something important away from you. But instead of allowing us to say, "Perform/behave or you will no longer be in this class!" policy makers have forced public schools to do exactly the wrong thing. When these kids fail to meet expectations, our "or what?" for them is to tolerate whatever they are doing or come up with something to make everything as convenient as possible for them to get through.

I am a classroom teacher, and I am more than willing to give kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their abilities and disabilities. But when it comes to effort and behavior, if you really want me to have high expectations, then let me be like Cary Eades.


Anonymous JohnL said...

Dennis, thanks for this post. I'm glad you're back.

There are a couple of ways that having high expectations can be mistaken. First, they're insufficient. Without effective teaching procedures, having high expectations for students simply puts the squeeze on them. It's as if motivation is everything. But, no matter how much I might want to get my running down to a sustained 6-min-per-mile pace, that won't happen without lots of training and probably some good coaching (intervals, etc.). Similarly, simply saying that we want our students to read fluently with comprehension will not cause it to happen without good teaching of the required skills and lots of practice.

Second, we too often substitute high expectations for reasonable expectations. The idea that no child will be left behind is basically good sloganeering, but it's unrealistic. I mean, really: "no?" Is that as in "none," "zero," "narry a one?" I'd wish it were true, but.... Ah well. I could go on. Sigh.

12/27/2007 5:27 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

John, I generally agree with you, but I do want to clarify one thing that I said in my post. Although I made a reference to No Child Left Behind, I was reluctant to do so because I didn't mean to put more blame on that law than it deserves. We have been trying to "leave no child behind" since long before that law was passed, and I think that's been a mistake. As harsh as it sounds, some kids deserve to be left behind. I don't think kids who are willing to help themselves should ever be left behind, but I have no sympathy for those who aren't. It doesn't matter what their situation is--bad upbringing, bad neighborhoods, or whatever--if kids aren't willing to contribute to their own education, we are beating our heads against a wall and bringing other kids down in the process. Every time we come up with programs or modifications for them, all we are doing is enabling their self-destructive ways. I am all giving kids a second chance if they ever decide they want an education, but until that happens, there's nothing we can do for them.

12/27/2007 9:32 AM  
Blogger nbosch said...

...or what? What if schools changed enough to make learning meaningful and motivate most kids? If kids could do work that was of interest to them and if they could make sense of what they learn in their own way and if they could produce in a way that was meaningful....but that would take too much change. Not only would our high schools have to change but the universities/colleges/training programs that these kids are going into would have to change and the universities who taught the teachers to teach these kids would have to change. If there is too much change would there be chaos?

12/27/2007 3:52 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Balderdash, Nbosch! One thing I've learned is that for almost any subject, the more you learn about it, the more interesting it becomes. But to get to that point takes some work. Some students are willing to do that work, but some aren't.

I can confidently say that I don't know many teachers who have worked harder to make their material more interesting to more students than I have. I've developed different activities, and I've even tried to incorporate the concept of multiple intelligences into my classes. (And in American History, that ain't easy!) But guess what? Whenever I come up with an activity designed to appeal to kids with "different learning styles," the kids who consistently work the hardest at it and perform the best are the same ones who work the hardest and perform the best at my regular stuff. They do so because they've developed some work habits and some character.

I think one of the worst things we can do in education is to give kids the message that it's okay to do poorly because teachers haven't adequately appealed to their learning styles. The fact of the matter is that most kids who do poorly do so because they lack the character to make an effort.

12/28/2007 3:29 AM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Oooh, that just made me think of some great classes that my students would be interested in taking:
1. Drinking Games for Teens
2. Myspace Design
3. Madden 08 Playbook Design
4. Texting for Success
5. IM Analysis
6. Bong Design
7. Fake ID Creation
8. Club Hoppin' 101
9. Youtube for Profit
10. How to be an Underaged Parent

Hmm, I wonder if I could get financial backers for this type of charter school.
*Look for this post coming soon at The Daily Grind.

12/28/2007 10:27 AM  
Blogger The Special Ed Concierge said...

As the parent of a child with disabilities, I have a different perspective of what the term "low expectations" is. For a kid who is deaf and blind, I find it abhorrent how many educators (and some Doctors) think there is no way this kid could be taught. They were all so wrong.

However, I have another question I would like to see answered. Whenever I see conversations like this that bash students who do not perform in school, I always wonder why "the system" does not treat these students with respect when the student says "I don't want to go to school". Their behavior is consistent with their verbalizations.

Yet, it appears to me that under these circumstances, "the system" takes the "moral high ground", enforces compulsory attendance rules and exerts it's power to show that these kids will go to school.

I think it is odd that professional educators castigate the students who want away from the professional educators. They are each saying to the other "f*** off".

Which one of these groups is the most detrimental to the common good?

12/29/2007 6:48 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

SEC, I want to re-emphasize that I realize there are people with real disabilities, and I believe public schools should do everything they can to give these kids the best education possible. Regarding your comment about education being compulsory, I can only say that I am not sold on that, especially not all the way up to age 16. I want us to do everything we can for those who really want to get an education, and I think we could be very successful if we would focus on them. When it comes to kids who don't want to be there, I'm not saying, "f*** off!" In fact, I'm saying, "I'm on your side!" I am all for them being allowed to make the decision not to be in school, and if they ever have a true change of heart, I'm all for allowing them to come back.

12/29/2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

my middle child is one who is highly intelligent, but is failing high school. Why? Simply put, it's because none of it matters to him and try as I might as parent to make him see the relevance of it all that he's learning, he just doesn't care.

So, where does that leave me? I am pulling him out of his local high school to save his teachers some grief and enrolling him in an online program. He will still be required to meet the requirements to graduate, but being at home will also enable him to do those things that matter most to him, namely making music.

This is a kid that has taught himself how to play the acoustic and electric guitar. He is in the process of teaching himself how to play the keyboard. None of this type of thing was offered at his local school.

This is a kid who loves to read Plato, Fredrich Nietzsche and other books on philosophy. Where does a kid like this fit into public high school where the focus seems to be now getting all kids ready for college, whether that's their goal or not.

There are some kids who do well in school because that is where they want to be, but we seem to want to think that all kids have the desire to be successful in school. This is simply not the case and it's something we need to start looking at seriously.

12/30/2007 10:42 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Teacher, you raise a great point. When I talk about kids who don't have the desire to do well in school, I'm sure my frustration with them comes through. But you remind me that a kid not having that desire doesn't necessarily make them "bad." In fact, there are kids who do nothing but frustrate me in my classroom who I can joke around and have a good time with and respect when I see them working at our local grocery store. Believe me, I sympathize with the frustration you must feel, and you're right that we must start looking at it seriously. Nevertheless, it doesn't change my bottom line: there is very little that those of us in public schools can do for kids who ain't buyin' what we're sellin'. From the actions you're taking, I'm assuming that you don't really disagree with this, and it sounds to me like you are doing the right thing. I sincerely wish you and your son the best.

12/31/2007 9:56 AM  
Blogger Lorne said...

Dennis, I enjoyed reading both your post and the responses to it. I think you make an excellent point when you ask about the ‘or what?’ that should follow the rhetoric about high expectations. My own experience with this concept, like so many others that were promoted over my years of teaching, was that boards and administrators tend to say anything that sounds great for public consumption, while rarely granting the tools necessary to educators to accomplish their lofty goals. But then again, I guess those will the great ‘vision’ never feel the need to provide any practical ways to realize utopia.

1/02/2008 12:42 PM  
Blogger Physics Teacher said...

I'm a new physics teacher, in my second year, and the whole "high expectations" thing kills me. If you LOWER the bar, that is you create a test that everyone can ace without studying or rubbing two brain cells together you will be credited with having high expectations. Raise bar by making a test that requires preparation and thought -- in the hope you will prod some out of your students, you will be accused of having low expectations. Go figure.

I have a boss, a former English teacher, who insists that all "concepts" are created equal, that is to say that she thinks that teaching the "concept" of Newton's third law is no different than teaching the "concept" that Romeo had a thing for Juliet. The fact that I myself didn't get a grip on the third law until I graduated with an engineering degree from a university shouldn't keep me from teaching it to ALL my students even though a vast majority of them have zero interest in the subject matter. I don't have "high expectations" if I don't think it possible.

In the event you may think that I am sub-par in my content area, I'd like to point out for the record that I scored in the top 15% in my Praxis 2 exam and 288 (out of 300)in the NYS CST in PHysics. It's the nature of the beast, something that the powers that be in education completely deny.

I believe that it's the "Church of Teacher Education", and its toadies in administration who are responsible for the state of public education. If we are to save public education -- and I believe this is a worthy goal -- we need to relieve education schools of their influence and put administrators in charge of maintaining student discipline, and not having them insist that ideas that took Newton years to iron out are teachable in a 90 minute lesson.

2/23/2008 9:16 PM  

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