The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

I took the summer off. Not from thinking, but from writing. Because honestly, who can manage to be disciplined when the kids are out of school? ☺ But welcome back to the Third Rail. Even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and interviewing and have a whole host of fun issues to dig into. So let’s start with an easy one.

I have been trying to put my finger on what has been bothering me about some recent conversations I have been having about the need for a greater diversity of school choices within our public school system. When I talk about diversity in this context, I mean the need to have schools that take different approaches to the work of educating students. To be very specific, we could talk about having more schools that take the Montessori or Expeditionary Learning approaches. But at its core, I am concerned that all students, regardless of family background and income, have access to schools that take a more student-centered approach to learning, schools that live out a commitment to educating the whole child.

What I think is most notable has been the reaction to this suggestion from people at the highest levels of educational leadership in our community. It begins with an acknowledgement that choice is important, and that all students should have access to high-quality schools. That’s when the hemming and hawing begin. It usually starts with a reminder that the work of the last fifteen years has been to ensure educational equity for all students. When pushed about what they mean by “educational equity”, the conversation remains firmly in the camp of ensuring student academic achievement in basic academic areas (reading, writing and math).

Let’s explore this a bit more. My research indicates that schools take different orientations to their work. For the sake of this discussion, let’s think of it in two general categories.

Bucket 1: These are schools whose orientation to the work is quite utilitarian in that the core purpose is seen to be academic achievement. These schools consider themselves to have provided a good education to students if their students perform well on tests in core content area and are on track to head to college. To be clear, I am not using this category to represent college prep charter network schools. College preparatory schools fall into this category but so do a vast majority of other public schools, especially at the middle and secondary school level.

Bucket 2: These are schools that have a more holistic approach to their work. A good education is seen to focus equally if not more on socio-emotional aspects of student development and places almost if not equal importance on “non-core” academic and non-academic subjects.

In most districts, including Denver, Bucket 2 schools that adopt more progressive approaches and serve affluent students score well on standardized tests. Schools that adopt this approach with more socio-economically mixed populations often have less compelling test scores. Given the indisputable correlation between higher family income levels and higher test scores it is not clear to me that this difference in schools’ scores reflects anything but poverty. Nevertheless, people usually point to this lower test score performance as an argument for sticking with Bucket 1 schools to serve poor and brown students.

This is exactly what happened during a recent conversation I had with an influential local district leader. This individual pointed at the chart that described the two types of schools and said: “I think that your and my kids could go to [Bucket 2] schools that approach education this way and be fine. But for kids that are coming in with really low abilities don’t you think that they are better served by these [Bucket 1] schools?

I’m sure he didn’t mean it to be insulting and I certainly don’t think he realized it was a pretty offensive thing to say. However, I think his remarks are important to analyze more deeply because they reflect the skepticism and concern that often accompany discussions about the type of education that best serves our “poor and brown” students.

There seem to be one or more related sets of assumptions that underlie these concerns:

Assumption #1: The best education is one that is highly academic; the rest is a bonus.

Even if we accept the claim above at face value, why then do so many families with the economic means send their kids to schools that prioritize or at least equally value all the non-core academic stuff? The truth is the socio-emotional skills developed in schools that take a holistic approach to education are no less important. Affluent parents know this. They are well aware that non-core academic skills will be just as (if not more) vital to the success, happiness, and general wellbeing of their children.

Assumption #2: Students who come from under-privileged backgrounds are far behind their more affluent peers and will be best served in schools that keep a primary focus on the academic because the rest will be a distraction from the primary mission of education.

Maslow’s hierarchy and science would indicate exactly the opposite – you cannot have true academic/intellectual achievement unless and until you have met the basic safety and emotional needs of students. Note, however, that academic achievement is not the same thing as having good test scores. You can train students to get good test scores. That doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term academic success. I would argue that standardized tests don’t really measure academic achievement at all.

Most disturbing to me is the third assumption:

Assumption #3: Students from under-privileged backgrounds can’t really excel in schools that try and adopt student-centered methods because they need the trappings of Bucket 1 schools: teacher-directed instruction, tightly regulated school cultures and climates, and fairly little autonomy for students compared to progressive schools.

I realize that the underlying motivation is a desire to help students coming from very challenging backgrounds to “succeed”. But it seems to me that this is the same type of thinking that leads to community-based policing in wealthy neighborhoods, and “tough on crime” policing in poor and brown communities. There seems to be a sense that the individuals in these communities are less capable of self-regulation and of taking responsibility for their own actions and progress without external pressures and consequences. An assumption that is rooted in a racial stereotype that is as old (and older) than our country. **

This reminds me of the phrase attributed to George W. Bush: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It was the phrase he used as he extolled the importance of No Child Left Behind and his effort to set high academic expectations for all children. I’ll co-opt it here to make a slightly different case.

I don’t care which of the assumptions above leads educational leaders and policymakers to hem and haw about why Bucket 2/student-centered/progressive schools may not be the best option for every single child in our public school system. Any possible objection is based on one of a handful of beliefs about poor and brown children: that they do not deserve full access to both academic and socio-emotional opportunities in our public schools; that we cannot expect public schools to provide them with both because it is too much for schools to do; or that they are incapable of succeeding in environments that expect and empower them to take ownership of their learning and behavior from their very earliest days in school.

Each of these beliefs reflects the soft bigotry of low-expectations. In some cases it is low expectations of schools and the adults in them. In other cases it is low expectations of the very students we claim to have been serving under the guise of “equity” for the last twenty years. In all cases, these low expectations have been perpetuated and calcified into a deeply entrenched system of educational “reforms”, including standards, assessments and accountability, that has made it nearly impossible for student-centered and progressive schools to work with our most under-served students. It is time for our leaders to take a hard look at the system they have created and begin the hard conversations and work it will take to ensure that we have a system that provides high-quality school choices for all students and not just those who can afford to navigate the public system.

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