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.