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Great Expectations

The last time it happened was a little over a year ago. I was coaching a cadre of new teachers, and one of them--a Teach for America "corps member"--and I were talking about the first day of school and the tone she hoped to set in maintaining an orderly classroom. I'm not worried, she said confidently. I have high expectations for them--and I'll make that very clear.

Oh, honey, if only it were that easy, I thought.

Using "high expectations" as touchstone for building an effective practice is essential, but wholly insufficient, in changing a classroom/building/systemic culture. The speechwriter who crafted the "soft bigotry of low expectations" meme for George W. Bush deserves a faux-reformy bonus, for embedding in the national consciousness the totally fictitious implication that teachers don't perceive potential and opportunity for their students in poverty. That the problems inherent in educating poor children lie with feckless, uncaring educators.

This concept is in direct contrast--to put it politely--with reality. From an award-winning colleague who teaches first grade in a Detroit public school:

My recent experience with district tests: DPS has developed a series of pre/post tests in each curriculum area to measure student growth. They are also a major factor in our evaluations. The tests themselves this year have been a nightmare. Believe it or not (ha!) they were not ready in the fall and we only just administered the PRE tests in March. Last week we were to administer the post tests for Social Studies and Science.

The tests are stored on DataDirector. We go there, find our tests, print them out along with scan sheets, administer the test and scan them ourselves. Only problem is that the tests (at least for my grade) are six pages long for each subject. Multiply that by 32 students in my class and that's a whole lot of photocopies. We don't have access to copies and our classroom printers are precious as we only get one ink cartridge per school year. Most of us have gotten around this by printing one test and displaying it via projector. Not ideal for the student, but hey, saves money...

My year has been pure hell, but at least I don't have 45 in my class like one of the 2nd grades here. EI, CI and ECDD kids all thrown together in one room with regular ed. Students have been transferred in and out as the district gives staff, then takes them away. Constant disruptions during instructional time (and by constant I really mean it literally--I don't think I EVER have more than 10 minutes uninterrupted). Science and SS have been out the window as I've tried desperately to keep up with reading and math. When it came time to give the post tests, they covered concepts I NEVER had an opportunity to teach. How are these tests supposed to measure teacher effectiveness when the students never learned the material? And this determines if I get to keep my job?!! Insanity.

Remember--this is what's happening in first grade. How long will it take for her students to internalize the hard, ugly bigotry of the system's use of questionable data from tests like these to declare their neighborhood schools--and their teachers--"low-performing?"

It is the system itself that has "low expectations."
When assessments are poorly crafted, poorly administered and used to punish, the deep belief that students will not score well is driving every step of the process.

We need a national conversation on the kind of public education system that will best serve all our children. Not the low-expectations design of test-and-punish. Not the "efficacy" model which seeks to meet the basic obligation of schooling and credentialing at the lowest possible cost. Not the standardized, market-driven silver bullet of the "same goalposts."

This conversation must be led by genuine educators, parents and civic-minded community leaders, not driven by technocrats, profit-seekers or policy gadflies.

I am proud to be a signatory on a proposal toward this end--and urge you to read and sign, and continue the discussion in your staff lounges, grocery stores and local op-ed pages. It's time to work toward the expectation that all kids deserve a free, high-quality, fully public education. As the Education Declaration to Rebuild America says:

We believe good schools are essential to democracy and prosperity -- and that it is our collective responsibility to educate all children, not just a fortunate few.


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