An Educational Reform Story: The Power of Expectations

(Note: I wrote a related article in January 2009. -ja)

In a recent article, I said that education reform begins with people changing their fundamental beliefs about student ability. I said that if you believe students do not have the ability to succeed, then the fair and just path is to help them get through school by bringing school down to their level. If you instead believe, as I do, that these students do have the ability to succeed, then the fair and just path is to use instructional approaches that bring them up to high standards of performance. Here is a true story that may illustrate the problem.

I used to work in a very large school district that, in the days before state-wide assessment, gave students district-wide writing assessments every few years. I was named the department chair in a high school with notoriously poor performance on that assessment – next to last of 22 schools. I worked hard to improve student achievement in writing. Inspired by Garfield High School’s celebrated reform efforts, which included eliminating all remedial courses, I pushed for the elimination of our remedial English courses. I met a lot of resistance, particularly from the counseling department. One guidance counselor actually told me that we had a moral obligation to offer courses for students who wanted to graduate without having to do a lot of work.

But I persisted, and in the first year, we got rid of most of the remedial classes. The experiment went well. In the second year, we were down to one 10th grade remedial class, and I assigned it to myself.

After a couple of months of working to get them up a notch and meeting great resistance, I gave them a new assignment. They turned in their usual very poor level of work, and when I told them I was expecting so much more from them, they gave me the familiar whine — I was too hard, and they weren’t smart enough to do better. I then handed back another set of papers to about three quarters of them. It was an essay on exactly the same topic, written with five times the skill, and with their name on the top. I had pulled the district writing assessments they had done in the 5th grade from their permanent files, and I had assigned the same topic to them as 10th graders. Every one of them, without exception, had written far better on that topic when they were 5 years younger.

I asked them why they were such better writers in 5th grade than they were in 10th grade. I let the ensuing silence go on for more than 5 minutes. Finally one of them spoke. “You got us,” he said. The class then admitted what was obvious. They had learned years ago that if they pretended they were not capable of doing quality work, no one would ask them to do quality work. They would get put into easy classes, and they could skate through school effort-free. Later in the year, with expectations set much higher, that class scored in the upper 50% of all classes on our school-wide writing assessment, surpassing most of the “regular” classes.

When they were seniors, I had an interesting chat with several of them, one of whom had just successfully completed his Composition for the College Bound class. They spelled out all the tricks that are used in remedial classes, besides the typical whining about difficulty and professions of incompetence. For example, if a teacher gave an assignment verbally without any kind of “paper trail,” a group would get together and agree to insist the next day that no such assignment had been given. Students who had done the assignment would see what was happening, hide what they had done, and agree that the teacher had never given the assignment. The teacher would invariably assume he or she had forgotten to give the assignment. That worked in remedial classes because they had the numbers to pull it off. They could not use that ruse in the regular classes.

It took about three years for our school to go from nearly last to the very first place in the district writing assessment. In that year when we made it to the top, we did not have a single student — not even a special education student — score in the lowest of the four levels of achievement in that assessment. We took several key steps to make that happen, and eliminating remedial classes was only one of them. All of those steps stemmed from our firm belief that student achievement is directly related to teacher expectations, and the more we expect, the more they will learn. Once we had that belief, we were able to implement the instructional strategies that helped us bring students up to those high expectations.

When I look at reform efforts across the nation, I always remember the experiences I had with these students. I wonder how many people looking to turn schools around really believe they can succeed in bringing students up to their full potential. I wonder how many of these approaches work to help students believe in themselves, believe that they can be what they want to be if they apply themselves. Too often I feel that what we see instead is a system designed to nudge failing students a little higher, with the ultimate belief being that this is all that can really be done.

But it can be done, and it has been done. And we know how to do it. It is just a matter of making it happen.

3 Responses

  1. Even the best students do it. They expect less of themselves than they can give. Our schools must challenge every student. It’s not about getting by. It’s about reaching our potential. Those who support mediocrity are making us a mediocre nation. How can they say our pledge of allegiance or sing our national anthem and feel no shame.

    I say this about the United States because I am ignorant about other nations. Singapore appears to seek greatness. I’d be pleased to hear from others around the world about their approaches to education.

  2. One More Thing……

    I am writing to ask for your permission to include your posts on and include a link to your blog in our directory. We would include a link back to your blog fully crediting you for your work along with a profile about you listed on DCguide….

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