We constantly throughout the term “high expectations” here at Re-Imagine education… “The lifeblood of any good classroom, high expectations are essential” (posted 6/21); “Educators and researchers ... have devoted their lives to defining what works - like holding high expectations for all students” (posted 9/26); “High expectations and high support are the ingredients necessary to build the skills and humanity necessary to combat the systemic violence lodged in America’s core” (Posted 2/7); But, what do high expectations actually look like? To answer this, we find it is helpful to think about expectations in different, though overlapping, buckets: Academic and Cultural.
On the academic side of classroom expectations, rigor directly relates to grade level content. TNTP has done substantial work to help define what grade level content means in their research initiatives (read TNTPs Opportunity Myth here if you have not already). To be grade level, content must align to grade level standards, i.e. readings and tasks need to be grade level appropriate, and questions need to connect to grade level standards. For example - if the standard in 5th grade literacy is:
“Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact) [RL5.3]”
Asking students to just find inferred details about characters does NOT meet high expectations while asking students to compare characters based on inferred details DOES meet high expectations as long as the text is grade level.
Beyond being grade level, content must also be relevant to meet high expectations. As Whitehead (1929) noted over 100 years ago, “In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call ‘inert ideas’—that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations... Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is above all things, harmful... Let the main ideas which are introduced be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible.” In the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework, educators are encouraged to design curriculum around relevant problems, and not exercises. The UbD authors state, “An exercise involves a straightforward execution of a “move” out of context. A problem is a demand within performance, requiring thought of the many choices and challenges that confront a performer in context.” Given the numerous problems in our world - educators should not be left without options to make any grade level standard relevant.
Even when a teachers materials are set to the bar of grade level standards and relevance - if the teacher does all the work for students in class, the classroom is not at grade level and is not meeting high expectations. Classrooms need to be a place where content is relevant and rigorous, a place where students do the heavy lifting, and a place where teachers guide by asking the right questions not by answering questions for students. While high academic expectations are integral, they are not the only requirement for rigor in education.
To truly have high expectations it is not enough to simply focus on academics. We have a responsibility to educate the entire person and that means we have to have high expectations when it comes to culture. While every building will possess its own unique characteristics which will develop into unique culture there are certain foundational elements that we can say are universal for high cultural expectations.
The first ingredient is being transparent about the why behind every expectation. Education in this country has never been intended to upset the status quo or nurture poor people and people of color. This naturally creates an adversarial relationship that young people inherently understand. When we fail to explicitly state the why behind our expectations the default will be the distrust that is a hallmark of adversarial relationships. Schools that fail to adequately explain the why position their adults as authoritarian and punitive and unnecessarily make it more difficult to build a healthy, thriving and liberating community. Instead schools should take the time during both staff and student orientation to have all staff and students articulate the why behind each expectation and making sure there is alignment. Through this process of transparent communication, school’s can also ensure that the “why” always connects to liberation and not oppression.
The second ingredient for high cultural expectations is the how. The exact same expectation, depending on the delivery, can land with students as oppressive and a collusion with uneven power dynamics or it can land as guidance from a trusted adult. If it lands as the former there is little good that comes from it, in fact the best one could hope for is conformity. If it lands as the latter there is growth and community is deepened. It is imperative, then, that loving accountability is the tone of every redirection and that every adult is oriented towards what Lisa Delpit calls being a “warm demander.” Being able to hold each other accountable in a way that conveys love, care and a belief in growth is essential for healthy community.
The third ingredient for high cultural expectations is intentional restoration. In any community there will be violations of the established norms and expectations. What makes a strong and healthy community is the response to those violations. It is actually easy to establish a list of “if this happens then this is the consequence.” And clear consequences and accountability is important so as to avoid what Freire called “complacent authority,”, but what is more important is what steps are taken to repair and how the violation is framed. Schools with high cultural expectations do the work of processing with students so that they understand how their actions hurt the community, they identity who was impacted and how, and then they allow the time and space for a repair plan to be developed and executed. This sends the message that community matters, that even if you violate and harm the community you matter, and that you can make mistakes and be welcomed back to community. Without this piece consequences create isolation, hopelessness, and feelings of resentment. All toxic to community and high expectations.
In Our Reality
In our reality, high expectations are not white normed expectations. Students should not be expected to read Shakespeare because it is both grade level and a classic since it has been taught by white teachers for over 100 years. Students should be expected to read Shakespeare if it is relevant to big problems like racism, classism, sexism, genderism, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy or White Supremacy. Students should not be expected to sit in silent rows because this was a traditional educational experience passed down by white educators. Student’s should be expected to sit in silent rows if they are taking a high rigor assessment to demonstrate how brilliant they are.
However, in our reality, according to the Opportunity Myth, across the country, in urban, suburban, or rural schools, in district or charter schools, on average, American students have access to grade level assignments just 24% of class time - with white students having more access and students of color less. Its harder to quantify low expectations is classroom culture, but the outcome data speaks for itself. On one end of the outcomes lies the number of students having to take remedial classes in college - which is estimated to total 1.5 billion dollars annually. On the other end, lies the School to Prison Pipeline leading to over 2.3 million people incarcerated with lost opportunities, and a direct annual cost of more than 80 billion. And both these outcomes disproportionately impact people of color in the negative more than white people. In order to move past our current reality - we all need to know what we mean by high expectations, and then hold ourselves, our colleagues, and our students to the bar we are all capable of reaching.
Ian McLaughlin, & Ryan Williams-Virden