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Whatever Happened to 'Unanxious' Expectations?

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Every now and then I like to settle back with a warm, brimming cup of Ted Sizer and ponder how it was when the Coalition of Essential Schools was young and we already worked hard to leave no child behind without Congress having to legislate this, as if it somehow hadn't occurred to us.

Of the principles of the Coalition, the one that always stands out for me, is about decency and trust:

The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation ("I won't threaten you but I expect much of you"), of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance).

What a wonderful term, "unanxious expectation;" how much of what troubles us every day and in broader contemplation is embedded in those two words?

Now, I've been an independent school college counselor for a while, and I know all about anxiety and expectations. I'm also the parent of three kids who have gone through what we rather wanly call "the college process;" to many kids, this feels more like an extended session on the rack. I see the effect of this on kids and families, and I do what I can to mitigate the worst of it, focusing on "fit" and "match"--but for the family it still so often comes down to fat or thin envelopes.

A recent article in the New York Times reports on research suggesting that stress levels for upper middle class kids are not so different from those affecting poorer children. It's easy to see why: if mommy and daddy are devoting inordinate amounts of time and treasure to giving a kid "every opportunity" to "succeed" in the world of high-stakes education and the admissions beauty pageant that goes with it, how must a child feel when she or he contemplates failure--all that test prep, all those summer programs and community service hours and AP courses, and in the end still a thin envelope?

As a society we are most of us complicit as cheerleaders for a system that is about anything but unanxious expectations. Independent and charter schools proudly roll out and repeat the word "rigorous" in their missions and self-descriptions, with "excellence" (= brag-level accomplishments, no public missteps) close behind. We are fascinated, even when revulsed, by the near-abusive details in the confessions of that Tiger Mom. If we did that to our own kids, we secretly wonder, would they, too, waltz into the Ivy League? Would it be worth it? And admission officers at selective colleges remind kids all the time that admission is a largely function of the "rigor" of their course loads; if your testing isn't so great, just pile on a few more Honors courses.

The syndrome can start with secondary school admissions, or even earlier. Parents in New York City, we are told, bite their nails to the quick while they scheme about pre-school admission and even public kindergarten placement. Poor households fret about making it through the day, and wealthy ones fret about their kids' futures; either way, it's tragically never enough just to be where they are.

And let's talk about homework. Most people still seem to believe that more is better, despite the evidence that great education can occur in its near-total absence. If kids aren't doing lots of math problems or writing papers, people think, they will be rotting their minds on TV or video games. They totally miss that there might be another way of looking at the opportunity costs: instead of craving the anodyne of TV or games to soothe minds and souls frazzled by schoolwork-for-schoolwork's sake, kids with real mental energy left at the end of a school day might actually discover and develop new interests, adding to their cognitive, cultural, creative, and social storehouses in ways even more significant and useful than simply doing six more math problems that are essentially just the first four, warmed over. Allowing kids to explore these interests, Tony Wagner tells us, leads to creating innovators.

Homework-happy teachers may be part of the problem, but they are also victims. Whatever bearing my school's college list might have on my future, the stress I feel must pale beside that of teachers awaiting the results of state testing to know their own personal fates. No wonder we hear of classrooms where virtually the only things being taught relate to the testing that will determine the teacher's professional status and even the continued survival of the school.

"I won't threaten you, but I expect much of you." How many of our students and our teachers confidently feel that this expresses the culture of their schools? I only wish that all education, at every level, really were characterized by unanxious expectations--high expectations requiring vigorous and even appropriately rigorous engagement accompanied by respect, compassion, and humanity.

I fear, though, as long as our society continues to make educational attainment feel like a zero-sum game for rich and poor alike, as long as classrooms must be arenas in which students and teachers are pitted against machine-scored tests and inflexible curricula, that the Coalition's lofty principle, like so many other ideals we educators carry around in our hearts, will remain a fantasy.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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