Low expectations. Perhaps there is no greater cause of the achievement gap and no subtler threat to low-income students than the low expectations thrust upon them from the moment they enter the world.
I teach English at a Washington, D.C. Public High School. With a school enrollment that consists of 99% African American students who all eat for free – society does not expect much from us. Indeed, that low expectation is met. In 2009, only 17% of our students were proficient in Reading. 15% were proficient in math. When I talk with other teachers and other community members about my school, they have never heard of it. When I tell someone the location of my school, I often am told how “bad” of a neighborhood it is. When I walk into my school building and the main office is scrambling to find people to cover the classes of teachers who decided not to come to work that day, I am dismayed. When my students enter my class and tell me that I’m the only teacher making them do classwork everyday, I become the “bad guy” for actually teaching. Low expectations permeate every single opportunity and experience of my teaching practice – and of my students’ lives.
This constant barrage of low expectations takes its toll – not just on the students but also on myself. In a world that does not expect much and in fact expects the worst out of students, I have found myself to lower expectations despite my deepest desires not to. One teacher cannnot be the only source of “high expectations” in a student’s life – and if he or she is, it is a very difficult task to achieve.
In one of my colleague’s recent blog posts, the author shed some insight into the daily catch phrase of “doing too much.” Click here to read the blog post in it’s entirety. This author uses dialogue between students and teachers that can be heard in the majority of public schools in the DC metro area:
“I can’t write 10 lines.”
“Yes you can.”
“I really can’t.”
“Yes. You. Can. Start writing.”
“I can only write 5.”
“Okay then. Start with 5 and then write 5 more—do it twice.”
“Aargh! You doin’ too much!”
-“Doin’-too-much” teacher and frustrated student attempting to find an excuse not to take a test seriously.
Students of all stripes and colors find pleasure in highlighting those instances where teachers ask too much of them. In DC parlance, “teachers be doing too much.” Ask an unprepared student to come to class with a pencil in hand and one hears, “you be doing too much!” Instruct a student to turn off and put away his iPod and one hears, “you be doing too much!” Tell a student to read his/her independent reading book and one hears, “you be doing too much!”
The catch phrase, “doing too much” can be heard in my classroom and many classrooms around the district. Now, many people, many teachers, and yes – myself included – tend to blame students for their lackadaisical attitude. Don’t they know that they are not doing anything? Don’t they know they actually need to do more instead of less to overcome the fact that they’re 3 or more grade levels behind than their peers in middle to high income schools? Shouldn’t they know that when teachers ask them to work it’s because we are trying to help them?! Shouldn’t students expect to be asked to do work the entire class period, every day????????
Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. No, students don’t realize that they aren’t doing a lot of work. They have never experienced or seen what it is like to truly work hard. No, students don’t know that they actually need to do more instead of less work. They are unaware that they are so far behind their peers across the nation. No, students don’t understand that when teachers actually teach, they are trying to help. And no, students don’t expect to complete classwork the entire class period, every day, because for the past 9 or more years of their lives in a school they have never been expected to do so. If a teacher has never taught these behaviors to a student, then that student will not learn. This is how low expectations create the very issues we ponder.
James Baldwin puts this idea of low expectations best when he says,
“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born, and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” (Read the entire passage here).
My students, in every facet of their life, are expected to achieve mediocrity – not excellence. We question why are students are so opposed to “doing too much” without questioning our own role and society’s role in the development of such an attitude. The low expectations that bombard a black student are enough to suppress the achievement of an entire class, an entire school, indeed an entire school district.
I have come to know, love, and admire all of my students – even the ones that give me hell. They are some of the most talented, interesting, and intelligent people that I know – but simply because of their zip code, the color of their skin, and the low expectations pressed upon them – their ambitions are limited; they are expected to perish in their own segregated DC community.
Until we as teachers, as a school district, and as a community unite to fight and reverse the low expectations placed on our students, we cannot truly reform the devastating education our students receive.