“He has a rough home life, he will always struggle.”
“He can’t do the work, so I only make him do a portion of it.”
“He will never be able to do it, so why should I even bother?”
The three statements above didn’t come from a journal article or from observing a teacher. Each one was made about me as I was growing up as a knucklehead in Miami, FL: The first statement was made by my 1st grade teacher, the second by my 4th grade teacher, and the third by my 9th grade Algebra teacher. All three affected my psyche in various ways, all negative. However, these comments aren’t just about me. The statements above illustrate a much larger issue in public education today.
Despite the considerable attention paid to this problem, there still seems to be a culture of low expectations that is applied to certain students depending on risk factors like race, socio-economic status, and academic history. Generally speaking, these expectations are not applied with malicious intent behind them. In fact, most teachers feel they are helping a student, protecting them from embarrassment or alienation, by not holding them to the same standards as everyone else. However, holding a student to low expectations helps perpetuate a fixed mindset, which will be detrimental to the student as they matriculate through grade levels.
As a former administrator and teacher in a large urban school district, I have seen this scenario play out time and time again. Although we know many students who enter the classroom can learn more than they are expected to, many of the teachers responsible for delivering the content and guiding students do not share the same sentiment. Consequently, when 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 ostracized and separated into small groups based on perceived ability. You know the ones: the “Bears” and the “Tigers” ability groups all kids can see through. The students know what those groups represent, as do the general stakeholders around the school. Those designations often represent the stigma of low expectations that teachers have with students. The students in groups of perceived lower ability receive less rigorous curriculum or intervention support.
These low expectations can continue to plague classrooms and students for years, especially if the classroom is populated with students that may have performed poorly on standardized testing. If a student receives a level 2 on an assessment, for example, they are likely to be viewed as a "Level 2" student year after year. Hard to move away from that when no one truly believes they can. We as educators understand that test scores can follow a student more doggedly than discipline referrals from the principal's office or a criminal record. If a student is pegged as a Level 2, more than likely they may never be able to break the stigma of that label until it is far too late. They get Level 2 curriculum, Level 2 expectations, and Level 2 support. Then, we scratch our heads, baffled, trying to figure out why they have dropped out or left the school system with a negative attitude about schools and education.
That would’ve been the case with me, if I didn’t have an opportunity to meet that one teacher who changed my perspective on education. Whoever said that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a liar. Lucky for me, I met Mr. Diamond, a teacher who changed those statements into ones like, “I don’t care where you come from, you can do whatever you put your mind to” and “I know it’s hard, but I have your back, so keep going” and finally, “I believe in you, you should believe in you too.” This teacher held me to high standards and exposed me to rigorous curriculum, and these things made a difference.
Words matter more than we think, and communicating positive beliefs towards students is the only way we will be able to shift the paradigm in public education from a culture of low expectations and low rigor to a culture of academic optimism. Offering every student the opportunity to engage with rigorous curriculum is more than just kind: it’s critical.