High expectations matter. There’s no doubt about that. There’s plenty of research to support the claim that teacher expectation matters a great deal when it comes to student outcomes. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson published Pygmalion in the Classroom. This study provided evidence that teacher expectations can significantly impact student achievement. You can read more about the historical overview of scholarly research on the impact of teacher expectation here. Today, as I read multiple perspectives on the achievement gap and listen to practitioners it seems the solution is often boiled down to this: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” These words came from then Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in 1999 in a speech he gave on how he planned to improve education. It’s not that I disagree with the significant impact expectations has on our students, but here’s the myth: Expectations alone won’t fix the achievement gap because these low expectations are rooted in something far more detrimental: bigotry.
For years I’ve listened to speaker after speaker share insight on how low expectations are the cause of the gap in performance between minority children and their White counterparts. While that may be partly true, the root cause of this is due to bigotry, prejudice, and systemic oppression sometimes inherent in our policies and practices in public education. Let’s get real honest here. Giving high expectations lip service doesn’t mean one truly believes that all students deserve a high quality education.
It is important and essential for us to acknowledge that being educators doesn’t mean we are universally agnostic to bias or prejudice of any kind. It means recognizing we all bring our biases to the table and it is our professional and moral responsibility to check ourselves and others when we see these skewed perceptions or biased beliefs and attitudes manifesting themselves in our classrooms and our school buildings.
If we were to really tackle the achievement gap, there are lots of things we would do, but one of them is that we would move the conversation beyond low expectations and really get at the heart of bias and bigotry. We’d talk through how we end up with skewed perspectives when we limit our personal experiences to being around other humans who live, work, worship, love, and believe like us. We’d end up digging deep into people’s hearts before we tried changing their minds. Even then it may not change anything, but the perpetual conversation around low expectations for Black and Brown children hasn’t either. I’m convinced it is because most are afraid to call it what it is: bigotry and bias. I don’t see it as soft either, but that’s a post for another day.
Those individuals who desire to lead with equity at the center must understand that this work goes far beyond having high expectations for all. It means recognizing when there are policies or practices that create inequity (intentionally or not) and making changes to those to create a more equitable experience for all students. Every educator has a set of core values that impacts their perspective and behavior. It can be difficult to see the inequity in practices and policies depending on your experiences, and especially if you’ve not been on the end of a practice or policy negatively impacting your access and opportunity. If leaders are interested in leading with equity in mind,they evaluate every decision with reflection questions like these:
1. Who are we leaving out?
2. Who is being excluded?
3. What barriers are impeding their access and/or opportunity?
Then, they work tirelessly to remove the barriers so that when they use the phrase “all students” it truly means all students. They call out practices that exclude and offer solutions to make them more inclusive and equitable. They build in deliberate ways to ensure that low expectations are checked along with bias. They create policies and practices that create a more equitable experience, equitable access, and equitable opportunities for all students. They are courageous enough to do this even when they are alone in their advocacy.
If we truly are interested in closing the achievement gap, we’re going to have to talk about the root causes: hearts and minds that believe some students are less capable and deserve different opportunities than others. The conversation will be difficult, but it has the potential to lead us to a place we’ve needed to address from the very beginning: the hearts of those who serve.
Until next time! Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!