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The Stigma of Low Expectations

"We underestimate students when they fall short of expectations because they don't understand the school game and we determine that they lack motivation. " Carol Ann Tomlinson

Recently, I read another great article in Educational Leadership by Carol Ann Tomlinson. Carol co-authored the article with Edwin Lou Javius which focused on teaching up in the classroom (Teaching Up). Teaching up is about providing high quality educational experiences to all students, not just the ones that teachers feel excel in school.

Their concern is that many students who enter the classroom can learn more than they are expected to. Often teachers have low expectations for some students, especially those who had a history of struggling, living in poverty or are transient. Those students are often separated into smaller ability groups for more direct instruction.

Separating students by ability is often done in K-12 settings. It happens in schools when students take electives and advanced placement classes, but it also happens within elementary classrooms when teachers do ability grouping. Tomlinson and Javius say, "The logic behind separating students by what educators perceive to be their ability is that it enables teachers to provide students with the kind of instruction they need."

So what is wrong with that? Shouldn't educators work with groups by ability so they can help students close the gap? Tomlinson and Javius are concerned that ability grouping may further widen the gap between struggling learners and those who excel. "All too often, however, students in lower-level classrooms receive a level of education that ensures they will remain at the tail end of the learning spectrum." This often reminds me of the Roach Motel. You can get in but you may never get out.

In order to understand where Carol and Edwin are coming from in the article, you must understand one of the major initiatives of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), which is the Whole Child movement. The Whole Child initiative centers around the idea that schools cannot teach to one type of learning style, they must take the whole child into account.

Teaching up and Whole Child sound like common sense but unfortunately they do not happen in all classrooms. There are a variety of reasons, such as teachers who have high class sizes, administrators who are unsupportive and difficult, or an over focus on high stakes testing. In an effort o meet increasing accountability standards and getting used to teaching the Common Core State Standards which is a shift in thinking for teachers, the true gifts of a child are not always observed in the classroom.

In addition to the idea that students may get tracked into one type of program that they will never escape, there is a stigma that comes along with that. It is the stigma of low expectations that teachers have with students. Low expectations can plague classrooms, especially if students do not do well on high stakes testing. If a student receives a 2, they may be seen as a "2 student" year after year. The interventions they receive may not always help them achieve at the level that they could. Educators understand that test scores can follow a student worse than discipline referrals from the principal's office. If a student is seen as a 2 they may never be able to break out of that label until it is far too late and they have left the school system with a negative attitude about schools. Who would blame them for doing so?

"We underestimate students when they come to us with skills and experiences that differ from the ones we expected and we conclude they're incapable of complex work" (Tomlinson and Javius). The reality is that children need equal access to resources which allow them exposure to real-life experiences. Those two key ingredients will help most students. "When lower-performing students experience curriculum and instruction focused on meaning and understanding, they increase their skills at least as much as their higher-achieving peers do" (Tomlinson and Javius).

It is important for educators to make their own judgments on students and making sure those judgments are based on good data. In addition to the data it is important to provide a classroom environment that will ensure that even the neediest students get an opportunity to stretch their learning and truly show what they know.

The following are some other suggestions by Tomlinson and Javius:

  1. Accept that human differences are not only normal but also desirable.
  2. Develop a growth mind-set. The greatest barrier to learning is often not what the student knows, but what the teacher expects of the student
  3. Work to understand students' cultures, interests, needs, and perspectives.
  4. Create a base of rigorous learning opportunities.
  5. Understand that students come to the classroom with varied points of entry into a curriculum and move through it at different rates.
  6. Create flexible classroom routines and procedures that attend to learner needs.
  7. Be an analytical practitioner.

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Tomlinson, Carol Ann & Edwin Lou Javius. Teaching Up for Excellence. Education Leadership. The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. February, 2012.

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