Speaking from Experience: High Expectations ≠ Same Expectations

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PM

This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

I have often heard that we special educators don’t set high enough expectations, which is why students with learning disabilities and other special needs have lower achievement levels than their peers. The assumption is that all students come to us the generally the same and that we are screwing them up – or in more palatable terms, that “the system is failing these students.”

The reasoning may sound logical to some. These students aren’t achieving as high as their peers because no one has previously expected them to do so. Although variation is a certainty in all other areas of the physical world, from rocks to plants to animals, we are to believe that there are no significant individual differences between student abilities except those that we teachers create through neglect and low expectation.

The solutions offered are to give students with disabilities (all but about the 1% of students with the most significant disabilities) the same high stakes tests as their peers and require the same set of minimum graduation requirements. The new Response to Intervention (RTI) model requires that students stay in the grade-level general education class and also receive additional pull-out support in an intervention class.

I have written before that I support the RTI model because it’s a general education initiative that includes students with disabilities and explicitly addresses targeted deficit areas. I also fully support a policy that includes students with disabilities in the general curriculum to the greatest extent that will support high levels of learning for the child. But conversations with some of my students have me rethinking the blanket policy of keeping all students in general education classes and forcing the same course requirements on all students in the name of “high expectations”.

Many of my students have deficit areas in some subjects as many as 6 – 8 grade levels below the general education class level. When they describe how anxious they feel in these classes, and embarrassed at exposing their weaknesses in front of their peers, I am reminded of the nightmares I used to have in my college days where I suddenly found myself sitting in a graduate-level Japanese class without ever having learned a word of Japanese. In my nightmares, I was powerless to protest at being pressured to pass a high-stakes test or make a presentation in front of the class and would wake up in a nervous sweat.

Some of my students complain of being so lost in some of their courses that the 47 minutes of class achieves nothing but a constant reminder of their deficiencies, or as one student put it, “All I can think about through the whole class is how stupid everyone thinks I am.” No wonder they want to run as far from educational settings as possible.

But with compulsory attendance laws that require their full-time attendance in school until the age of 18, many have instead responded by developing some bad school habits such as:

  • Truancy: Some students practice as many forms of school avoidance as possible until they can turn 18 and quietly disappear. They would rather face court appearances, fines, and community service than attend school.
  • Silent protest: Other students come to school to comply with laws but simply don’t engage. They don’t listen in class, attempt classwork or homework, and don’t show up for remediation opportunities.
  • Acting out: I have had students tell me that they would rather have their peers see them as a behavior problem (seen as “cool” to many kids) than expose that they simply can’t do the work in class, and as an added perk, the more trouble they get into, the more likely they will be suspended or sent to in-school suspension and therefore, avoid class.
  • Cheating: Many of my sweetest and most earnest students cheat on a daily basis and seem to feel no remorse when caught because they rationalize that it’s the only way they have ever turned in work that satisfied teachers, so that must be what school wants them to do.
  • Gaming the system: Both students and teachers have discovered that there are ways to improve scores on high-stakes tests without actually increasing academic knowledge or skills. In math, there are shortcuts with the calculator that allow students to have no conceptual understanding of the material, but have memorized a series of keystrokes to find an answer. In other subjects, there are guessing strategies and formulaic answers.

Last week, while tutoring a student to solve a system of linear inequalities for a general education class test, I discovered that he did not know how to find half of a value by dividing by two. Will solving inequalities ever serve a student who lacks basic numeracy? We have seen scores on proficiency tests and graduation rates increase while also noting no rise in college and career readiness because we are so focused on measuring achievement by standardized tests that we have not given teachers the time needed to teach deep understanding of the most important foundation-level skills. Sometimes it takes a small group classroom and personalized goals to see success for a struggling student.

Time is limited in our school schedules, so there is no justification for keeping a young person in a class past their frustration level where they are developing bad habits and an aversion to school. Tennessee high schoolers must earn 22 very specific credits to graduate. All my students need Math and English classes to prepare them for their futures. They also need Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes, and other classes in their areas of interest, so that they can learn skills relevant for their chosen futures. Students often report that they learn more useful literacy and numeracy skills in their CTE classes than they learn from general education classes, so we must preserve time in their schedules for these classes.

Of course we set high expectations. What else would we strive for? There are no logical arguments for setting low expectations. But high expectation does not mean uniform expectation. It does not mean keeping students in classes that overwhelm them and convincing ourselves that just setting the expectation means they will get it. It does not mean graduating students who can muddle through a standardized test but lack the basic skills needed to maintain a job, become independent and contributing members of our communities, or continue into post-secondary learning. High expectations are student specific and best achieved by giving teachers the training, support, and time they need to help all students learn the skills they need to meet their goals, not just pass a test.

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