Friday, May 29, 2015

The High Expectations Fallacy

High expectations. Boy, do we love that phrase these days.

It's hard-wired into the Common Core. CCSS will use higher expectations to bring about great student achievement. I could link to hundreds of articles using some version of that phrase. The Core will save us all through the power of higher expectations.

As a flip side of this, every instance of a student coming up short is blamed on low expectations. The oft-repeated mantra that we have lied to students, telling them they're on track for college when they aren't. The claim that students with special needs only come up short on school achievement because their teachers have not expected enough of them. Here's the thought as clearly expressed by Washington State:

The evidence is clear that disabilities do not cause disparate outcomes, but that the system itself perpetuates limitations in expectations and false belief systems about who children with disabilities can be and how much they can achieve in their lifetime.

So, high expectations are the key to success and greater achievement. Higher expectations are the key to every thing!

Well, not everything.

For instance, we often offer proof that students aren't ready for college because so many of them take remedial courses. But why? Haven't colleges heard of the magical power of expectations?

I mean, why have the student take a remedial course when you could just have all professors raise their expectations? Come on, Professor McWeisenheimer! Just expect those freshmen to do better! Raise your expectations and surely, face with higher expectations, those college freshmen will be awesome!

And what about employers. We've heard that Common Core is needed to get students ready for careers, but couldn't employers do that just by raising expectations? If new employees are doing poorly, that disparate outcome must be the result of a corporate system that perpetuates limitations in expectations. If we could just train employers to have higher expectations, then all new employees would rise to those expectations! Paradise! Unicorn farms!

Look, I have great respect for the power of high expectations, and I think my students would back me up on this. But if reformsters are going to insist that high expectations are the secret to fixing everything about schools, they need to explain why the power of high expectations ONLY applies to K-12 education and not to either college or the workplace. Until then, the phrase is just an empty soundbite, and really, I expect much better of them.


  1. I'm an elementary school teacher at a school with 6 special day classes. I have had kids from those classes mainstreamed in my class for various subjects over the years. High expectations alone will not help most of these students grow academically. Many of them will never be strong academically, but that doesn't mean they might not have other strengths, strengths that would never be adequately addressed if they were in a regular ed class with 30 or 35 other students all day, as is the case with my class. They truly need very small classes (usually 10 or less) with individualized education plans, with modified curriculum, with expert SDC teachers who can implement those plans, with aides to help the SDC teacher to help the kids to achieve to the degree that each child can achieve. It sounds to me like Washington state, along with many other states, and districts, are looking to unload special ed into the regular ed classrooms, not to meet student needs, but to cut costs. This will be to the severe detriment of those kids who need specialized learning situations, but will also cut back, or down on how much education the non-disabled population gets, because teachers will be having to spend so much more time with the lowest students in their classrooms.... it's a national nightmare, for everybody, except the people holding the purse strings.