Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Difference Between High Expectations and Harsh Mandates

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my role in raising academic achievement in one school. I had had a discouraging day and I wanted to encourage myself by reliving an accomplishment. So I was gratified to find I had prefigured Joann Yatvin's understanding of the Pygmalion effect. Well said, Ms. Yatvin.

The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers’ concept of high expectations and that of today’s reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word “expectation.” To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings.

I did not announce to any of the students, “You WILL be studying algebra in the eighth grade.” Those kinds of so-called high expectations back fire.

What I did everyday is communicate to my students in a myriad of subtle ways that I believed in them, I believed in their abilities and I believed in their worthiness. My entire education philosophy could probably be summed up by a version of the Golden Rule. I thought, “If these were my kids, what would I do?” One parent reported to me that her daughter told her, “My teacher is so smart. If she thinks I'm smart, too, then I must be.”

That said, I raise a hearty amen to this comment:
As a lifelong educator, I am not so starry-eyed as to think that believing in students is all that teachers and schools have to do to enable them to succeed. Every school needs a strong curriculum, high-quality materials, well-planned instruction, extra-help options, and meaningful assessments.

Effective education is about meeting the need of the students, not pundits, politicians or even educators.

schools must appeal to and support the strengths of students, not play on their fears and weaknesses.

Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning.

Any former student of mine who happens to read what Ms. Yatvin says about rigor will chuckle. They will remember the many times I said that rigorous doesn't mean studying “hard;” it means studying right.

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