High Expectations


Benard (1995) describes the value of high expectations in the schools:

"Schools that establish high expectations for all students--and provide the support necessary to achieve these expectations--have high rates of academic success (Brook et al., 1989; Edmonds, 1986; Howard, 1990; Levin, 1988; Rutter et al., 1979; Slavin et al., 1989). In the book Fifteen Thousand Hours, Rutter (1979) and his colleagues report on research that they conducted in schools located in some of the most poverty-ridden areas of London. Their findings show considerable differences in these schools' rates of delinquency, behavioral disturbance, attendance, and academic attainment (even after controlling for family 'risk' factors). The successful schools share certain characteristics: an emphasis on academics, clear expectations and regulations, high levels of student participation, and alternative resources such as library facilities, vocational work opportunities, art, music, and extracurricular activities. One of the most significant findings is that the longer students attend these successful schools, the more their problem behaviors decrease. In unsuccessful schools, the opposite is true--the longer students attend them, the more they exhibit problem behaviors. Rutter (1979) concluded that, 'Schools that foster high self-esteem and that promote social and scholastic success reduce the likelihood of emotional and behavioral disturbance' (p.83).

Resiliency researcher Garmezy (1991) claims Rutter's work 'stands forth as a possible beacon for illuminating the role of schools as a strategic force in fostering the well-being of disadvantaged children' (p. 425). The power of a schoolwide ethos of high expectations also appears in research on protective factors by Brook (1989) and her colleagues. This research team found that high expectations and a schoolwide ethos that values student participation mitigate powerful risk factors in adolescents' use of alcohol and drugs.

During the last decade, research on successful programs for youth at risk of academic failure has clearly demonstrated that high expectations--with concomitant support--is a critical factor in decreasing the number of students who drop out of school and in increasing the number of youth who go on to college (Mehan et al., 1994). According to [Phyllis] Hart of the Achievement Council, a California-based advocacy group, when a poor, inner-city school established a college core curriculum, over 65 percent of its graduates went on to higher education--up from 15 percent before the program began. Several students stated that 'having one person who believed I could do it!' was a major factor in their decision to attend college (California Department of Education, 1990). Similarly, Levin's Accelerated Schools Program and Slavin's Success for All project demonstrate that engaging low-achieving students in a challenging, speeded-up (as opposed to a slowed-down, remedial) curriculum produces positive academic and social outcomes (Levin, 1988; Slavin et al., 1989). These findings are in direct contrast to the dismal achievement of children whose schools label them slow learners and track them into low-ability classes--high percentages being children of color--documented in Oakes' (1985) study of tracking.

Conveying positive and high expectations to students occurs in several ways. One of the most obvious and powerful is through personal relationships in which teachers and other school staff communicate to students, 'This work is important; I know you can do it; I won't give up on you' (Howard, 1990). The literature on resiliency repeatedly confirms the protective power of firm guidance, challenge, and stimulus--plus loving support (Garbarino et al., 1992; Werner, 1990). Youth who are succeeding against the odds talk of being respected and of having their strengths and abilities recognized (McLaughlin et al., 1994; Mehan et al., 1994). Successful teachers of poor children refuse to label their students 'at risk'; they look at each child and see the gem that is inside and communicate this vision back to the child (Ashton-Warner, 1963; Ayers, 1993; Carini, 1982; Curwin, 1992; Heath, 1983; Kohl, 1967). They look for children's strengths and interests, and use these as starting points for learning. In Among School Children, Kidder (1990) describes the power that teachers have to motivate children: 'For children who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to or deserving rape and beatings, a good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, "She thinks I'm worth something; maybe I am" ' (p. 3). Thus, a relationship that conveys high expectations to students can internalize these beliefs in students and by doing so, develop the self-esteem and self-efficacy that Rutter found in the successful schools in his study.

Schools also communicate expectations in the way they structure and organize learning (Weinstein et al., 1991). We have already discussed the positive results that accrue from giving all youth access to college core subjects. Rutter's research also confirms that a rich and varied curriculum gives students the opportunity to be successful not just in academics but also in art, music, sports, community service, work apprenticeship, and in helping their peers. Similarly, teachers who teach to a broad range of learning styles and multiple intelligences communicate that the school values the unique strengths and intelligences of each individual (Gardner, 1985). Schools that encourage critical thinking and inquiry and the development of a critical consciousness are not only able to engage youth but are especially effective at communicating the expectation that students are truly capable of complex problem-solving and decision-making (Kohl, 1994; Mehan et al., 1994).

Another aspect of curriculum that leads to high expectations and resiliency is the need for schools to infuse multicultural content throughout the curriculum. This honors students' home cultures, gives them the opportunity to study their own and other cultures, and to develop cultural sensitivity. All children and youth need to develop their primary language skills and learn English as a second language or, if English is their primary language, to learn a second language. Moreover, schools must be adept at doing this without intensifying cultural and language stereotypes. As Hilliard (1989) concludes after years of studying the role of learning and teaching style in the education of youth of color, 'The explanation for the low performance of culturally different minority group students will not be found by pursuing questions of behavioral style....The children, no matter what their style, are failing primarily because of systematic inequities in the delivery of whatever pedagogical approach the teachers claim to master--not because students cannot learn from teachers whose styles do not match their own' (p. 68). He goes on to discuss low expectations for youth of color as the core of these 'systematic inequities.'

How we group children in our classrooms and schools indicates the expectations we have for them. Research by Oakes (1985) and others documents the deleterious effects of tracking on low-achieving students. Conversely, recent research demonstrates...positive academic and social outcomes as a result of heterogeneous, cooperative learning groups (Wheelock, 1992; Johnson & Johnson, 1990; Slavin, 1990). Furthermore, no matter how well-meaning, targeted programs that label children 'at risk' may be doing more harm than good. As educator Kohl tells it, 'Although I've taught in East Harlem, in Berkeley, and in rural California, I have never taught an at-risk student in my life. The term is racist. It defines a child as pathological, based on what he or she might do rather than on anything he or she has actually done' (Nathan, 1991, p. 679).

Evaluation is one more component of schooling through which we convey either high or low expectations. Schools that motivate young people to learn do not rely on standardized tests that assess only one or two types of intelligences, usually linguistic and logical-mathematical, according to Gardner (1985). Nor do they focus on 'right answer' questions and assessments. Instead, they use several assessment approaches, including authentic assessments that promote student reflection, critical inquiry, and problem-solving, and assessments that validate children's different intelligences, strengths, and learning styles.

A final area in which expectations play a role is in motivating students and instilling within them a responsibility for learning. Kohn (1993) argues that extrinsic rewards 'punish' youth. Schools that are especially successful in promoting resiliency build on students' intrinsic motivation. These schools actively engage students in a variety of rich and experiential curricula that connect to their interests, strengths, and real world activities (Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Weinstein et al., 1991). In addition, they count on students' active participation and decision-making in the daily life of the classroom and school to build responsibility and ownership for learning. These, in turn, become intrinsic motivators for further learning and resiliency." (pp. 70-72)

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