Low expectations for other peoples’ kids

Stop Limiting Poor and Minority Kids with Low Expectations, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The Harvard Ed report advocating multiple pathways — career tech as well as college prep — dooms low-income and minority students to dumbed-down curricula, instruction and expectations, Biddle believes.

He criticizes my call for  “realistic pathways” for struggling students.

What she fails to consider is that the reason why they are struggling in the first place: Low-quality instruction and abysmal curricula throughout their times in school, especially in the early grades.

The reading, math and science skills needed to earn a bachelor’s degree are the same skills needed to succeed at a community college or technical school, Biddle argues. Everybody needs a high-quality education whether they’re heading for Harvard or trade school. They’ll only get that on the college-prep track.

Expectations matter. If teachers and administrators think that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of college prep education, then they won’t actually put any work into even the most basic instruction and curricula. They won’t develop intense reading remediation for kids in the early grades.

. . . “Realistic pathways” in schools means ability tracking and denying poor kids entree into the college prep courses that teachers and guidance counselors often reserve for kids they think can learn. It means magnet schools that don’t actually reflect any sort of diversity. It means the lack of school choice in any form.

Biddle has a valid point. (And I appreciate the thoughtful way he makes it.) If expectations are low in elementary and middle school — if nobody intervenes to help the kid who’s not learning to read or multiply — then students will start high school so far behind that it will be very difficult for them to succeed in college-prep courses. It will be hard for them to succeed in vocational courses.

I see the risk of creating a separate, less demanding track for other people’s kids. But the “forgotten half” of students aren’t getting high-quality college-prep. They take classes with college-prep titles and dumbed-down content, because the teachers aren’t allowed to fail most of their students.  They go to community college and four-year colleges and fall into the black hole of remedial education, never to emerge with any credential.

Nearly all high school seniors plan to go to college; 89 percent think they’ll earn a four-year degree.  Expectations are high. Achievement is low. In a Florida study, 20 percent of high school seniors with C averages or below went on to earn a college credential of any kind, including a short-term certificate.

We need to do a much better job educating children in K-8 so they’ll have real choices in high school. But I think more students would succeed if they had the option of a high-quality career track or a high-quality college-prep track. Making sure those options offer strong academics will be a challenge. But it’s one we should tackle.

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  1. Such kids aren’t getting voc ed *or* college prep right now, so voc ed would at least be an improvement. I’d rather take baby steps than no steps at all. Another way to look at it is to say that the journey of a thousands miles begins with one step.

  2. Enjoy your posts. This one was on target.

  3. Step 1: make sure all kids get instruction that is good enough (and for poor kids, intense enough) so that they learn as much as they can.

    Step2: when these kids reach high school age, figure out what their realistic chances are of attaining a 4-year degree, and factor in their interest in academic subjects. If their chances are low, based on how far through a college prep curriculum they’ve come so far (i.e.if their reading level is much below grade level, or if their math achievement does not make them ready for Algebra), provide high quality voc ed. AND ALSO, even if their achievement so far is up to par but they actively prefer voc ed, help them pursue that direction. And that includes middle class kids as well.

    But please, stop setting up both poor and middle class kids for disappointment and failure if they are not showing sufficient traction for academics by high school age to make 4-year college a realistic plan.

  4. Who decides what the criteria is for figuring out a students “realistic chances” of getting a 4-year degree. I’ve seen students start high school who wouldn’t have met that criteria who are now holders of a college degree. Granted, they have had to work much harder and be more determined than their peers, but it makes me sad to think that in 9th grade someone would have told them they couldn’t do it.

    I think it’s important to have many options out there, but many of the avenues discussed in the original article (for example, nursing) require a high level of academic preparedness. In an ideal world I think we need to look at how we can raise the academic bar for everyone and also have a variety of programs in high school to help all students be better prepared for life.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    What do you do with a kid who has low capabilities when you expect a good deal from him? Continual disappointment?

  6. For every child who would be capable of a 4-year degree, but doesn’t develop the motivation until after the beginning of high school, there are several more who never do develop the motivation, and several beyond that whose basic skills are just too far behind whether because of motivation, opportunity, or innate ability. And this is true at all income levels.

    Rather than shoehorning all students into a college prep curriculum, (and especially when so many are voting with their feet by dropping out), offer alternatives, stress that switching goals is always possible (though it may take an extra year) and teach as intensely in voc ed programs as we (allegedly) do in college prep ones. Although the fact is that lots of what passes for college prep even now is mis-named and doesn’t prepare the students enrolled in it for a real college curriculum.

  7. Biddle argues: “If teachers and administrators think that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of college prep education, then they won’t actually put any work into even the most basic instruction and curricula. ”

    But this actually reflects inappropriate incentives among the teacher and administrators. Of course, if staff are told that the goal is to get the kids through college prep education, and incentivized accordingly, then that’s what they will do (or try to appear to be doing). Cutting their losses by not investing effort in probable “failures” is a logical response.

    If parents, educators, students, and society at large are setting the wrong goals and providing the wrong motivations, don’t be surprised at the result.

  8. I completely agree with Rishawn Biddle. The emphasis should be on real curriculum and teacher quality reform, and in my opinion curriculum reform is the priority (yes, I’m a core knowledge groupie). It’s really pathetic for adults to dump thousands of kids throughout the country into low performing schools with crap for curricula and then to talk about the kids as if they’re all a bunch of failures who didn’t take advantage of the incredible opportunities they’ve been provided all these years. I’m not against kids in 10th grade choosing career paths that don’t involve Bachelor’s degrees (in fact, I’m all for it), but until that point they all deserve and need a rigorous liberal arts education – which very few kids seem to be getting in this country right now! While the short-term solution for kids in high school today may be to guide many towards non-degree paths it is not the long term solution to the low quality education that our elementary school students are receiving today. If our schools did provide a proper education – strong math skills, strong writing skills, exposure to quality literature, etc., then many wouldn’t even need to go to college because they’d be well-educated young adults ready to enter technical schools, internships or apprenticeships. Some will still fall through the cracks because of other factors that schools can’t control, but it won’t be because of 12 years of lousy curriculum and lousy teaching. But, until then, I won’t blame kids for being disingaged and unable to pass basic college courses when it is the fault of school boards, superintendants and principals for treating schools like day care centers rather than places of education.

  9. How about we take care of K-8 education first? If all kids are receiving quality instruction in K-8 then their high school path will be clearer. I absolutely believe that voc tech is a realistic and desirable alternative, but until we’ve developed a more effective program for our younger students, how do we know how to develop and offer an effective job training program in place of a college path?

  10. “Low-quality instruction and abysmal curricula throughout their times in school, especially in the early grades.”

    Who says so? You noticed any of those intense charter schools with entire teaching populations provided by Stanford doing any better with elementary school kids?

    It’s easy to think that it’s the instruction, but I know a number of people from my class who student taught at low-performing Oakland and SF schools, side by side with teachers who Stanford thought were excellent teachers. And where do you think all those wonderful TFA teachers are going, if not to god awful schools?

    I’m sure that many low performing schools have terrible teachers, but many low performing schools don’t. The results aren’t all that much better.

    It’s simply wrong to assert that the poor results are exclusively or even primarily the results of poor teachers. The most likely reason that kids don’t do well in school is that they don’t have the cognitive ability to do any better. Teachers can improve on the margins, but that’s it.

    This is the blowback to the voced push, the one I’ve been pointing out any time someone brings up voced. We won’t be able to put it in place because it will instantly lead to a disparate impact lawsuit.

  11. Cal– or they don’t have parents who expect them to do well in school, make sure they master the material, and enforce discipline.

    A cultural disability is not the same as a cognitive one. We should be able to get most kids up to at LEAST a 6th grade level in reading and math– and we’re not even doing that.

    BUT it’s also not the teacher’s fault if she can’t force the kids to work/learn/behave. There’s only so much you can do when the kid is raised in total chaos….

  12. As I’ve said in other posts, without preparation in K-8 classwork which includes solid fundamentals in math (without the use of a calculator, in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and percentages), reading (comprehension and analysis), and writing skills (subject-verb agreement, clarity, and concise grammar), most students will wind up struggling when they reach high school (regardless of what track they might try to choose while in high school).

    We’ve tried to reform education so much in the US over the last 25+ years that in my opinion, we no longer see the forest through the trees. I think that a return to what worked in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s is exactly what is needed in public education (however, many educational specialists would disagree with me).

  13. Tim-10-ber says:

    Take poor out of the equation…stop setting up most kids for failure. Offer a high quality voc-tech. Include strong academics but encourage kids to follow their heart…if they want to be mechanic, electrician, plumber, etc. Please let them…they can make excellent money and eventually own their own business hiring others. Teach them accounting in addition to their chosen field. Help kids graduate high school with a degree that means something including the ability to comprehend whz they read, write well, think strategically, be a team player and a self starter. Don’t think this is too much to ask of K12 education, is it?

  14. Biddle speaks as if low expectations cause low achievement. This is yet another way to scapegoat teachers and avoid looking at the complex and ugly truth. Many kids have knowledge deficiencies that high expectations alone cannot remedy (Geena’s point). Many kids have cognitive deficiencies that high expectations can do nothing to fix (Cal’s point). Many kids have bad behavioral habits that high-expectations will not fix (stern discipline might). Biddle and many like him are loathe to face these truths, thus their penchant for the “low-expectations” explanation for the achievement gap. Reminds me of the “institutional racism” explanation.

  15. The high schools in my district graduate about 50% of their incoming Freshmen. Yet we are told every one of our students must be treated as though they are college bound. Our high schools do not offer general education classes, the lowest (non-special ed) level offered is college prep.

    Am I the only one who sees the disconnect here?

  16. J.D. Salinger says:

    The most likely reason that kids don’t do well in school is that they don’t have the cognitive ability to do any better. Teachers can improve on the margins, but that’s it.

    Yep that must be it.

  17. Well, I confess I spent 28 years in public education and 22 of those were, by choice, with high-risk minority populations in middle and high school classrooms, as a counselor, and as an administrator. I had little to no parent involvement. My last six years were in upper middleclass schools with lots of parent involvement. (Eureka! I’d found all the parents I had been looking for during the previous 22 years!) Six of those years were in special education. (About half of my kids didn’t belong in special education. They simply hadn’t learned the basic skills needed at the elementary grade levels and kept falling behind.) Now I’m a community college adjunct instructor, so I think my range of experience is fairly wide and deep.

    When I became a principal, I asked for an elementary assignment. My goal was to address the disastrous curriculum and instructional issues at grades K-5 so other middle and high school teachers, AND MY STUDENTS, would not have to face the world of failure that so many teachers, parents and kids must confront these days. Do you know how hard it is to demand good curriculum, rather than continue using the garbage that’s promoted in teacher training/schools of education and among leaders who follow an ideology rather than proven results? We managed to do it at my school but I was NOT liked by the district office even when our students scored in the top 5% of 67 elementary schools in our district. I wasn’t a “team player,” they said. Their adult club insisted on that membership standard.

    Yes, I even made them mad when I said I’m a big fan of voc-ed because 1) it often shows students how and why to apply the basic skills in the working world (not the faux ones in class “projects”), and 2) it provides them with employment skills if they want to go to college at some point in their lives. When we decided that everyone should be prepared for college and began cutting vo-tech in the 1980s, we did a huge disservice to our students and our country. Believe it or not, I want a plumber who knows how to fix my toilet, not an intellectual who enjoys explaining the theory of waterflow to me.

    I see a lot of students in my college class who are weak academically, but who didn’t really understand that until they got to college. As I visit with them, I can trace that weakness as having originated in elementary school, especially in mathematics and writing. Therefore, I support those who say, “Fix the elementary curricula, teacher-training, and administrative-training, and let diverse tracks be available for students who reach high school.” A good foundational preparation is indeed needed for trades workers and college graduates. If that’s the case, why deny anyone the right to pursue a trade rather than a degree?