The Secret to Education Excellence: High Expectations

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In the quest for excellence in education, all parties want the same results: high-achieving, well-rounded students who rise to their full potential, ready for college and primed to take on whatever the world can throw at them. Parents, politicians, educators, administrators, and the talking heads on Cable TV all agree on these worthy objectives.

Alas, they agree on very little beyond that. Each group has its own unique formula for success. Regarding the question of how to achieve these objectives, the various groups circle their wagons and vigorously defend their divergent points of view.

One group champions public education and sees charter schools as an ill-advised drain on scarce resources. Another claims charter schools are the answer. One side favors uniforms while another celebrates the torn jeans and green hair of self-expression. Single-sex education has its defenders as well as its critics. Schools definitely should test more, except when they should absolutely test less. Entire industries are dedicated to the ongoing debate, leading to legislative battles, lawsuits, and other unpleasantness in the effort to promote one method over another. The vast amounts of time and money spent duking it out among these warring factions are diverted away from genuine educational needs.

Yet regardless of their political alignment, economic status, or any other variables, every individual and institution with a stake in American education today should be asking the same simple question:

What works?

What do we know about school experience that brings out the best in students, whether public or private, wealthy or low-income, single-sex or coed, in strict environments or lax? What is the common denominator underlying every high-performing school, teacher, and educational approach in America?

The answer: High expectations. Academic and behavioral. No excuses, no exceptions.

From the barrios of East L.A. to military schools, from the tough streets of Harlem to prep academies for the wealthy elite, the schools that set the bar high and hold everyone to the same level are the schools that get results.

Elite schools are expected to insist on high expectations and produce top-level graduates. Unfortunately for millions of American students, expectations are lower in low-income school districts. More than anything else, low expectations are a result of attitudes taken by parents, teachers, and administrators toward low-income students. According to the American Psychological Association, teachers in economically-embattled neighborhoods tend to encourage less, demand less, and accept less from their students than teachers elsewhere because they assume that's the best the students can do.

Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are often unprepared to learn. Straight out of the gate, they lag behind, rarely close the gap, and struggle to catch-up the rest of their academic lives. Many of them have parents with limited education and reading skills themselves. Single-parent homes are far more common in lower-income families than in middle-class households. This means that the children who need the most help often have more stress and fewer resources than their middle-class counterparts. Being a single parent places incredible demands on both time and energy. The stressful nature of this scenario often means that a single parent simply lacks the freedom and flexibility to provide adequate support and attention to their children's educational needs. According to the American Psychological Association, children from the most economically disadvantaged 20% of families enter high school 3.3 grade levels behind their wealthiest peers. Even worse, they graduate an average of 4.3 grade levels behind, losing another full year during their high school careers.

Because they start so far behind, these children need more encouragement and more help than middle-class students, yet their teachers are often among the youngest, most inexperienced, and shortest tenured in the district. Teachers with more seniority have greater freedom to choose more stable and well-financed learning environments. Teachers who are left – or who have a heart for these students in need – often see poorly prepared, struggling students with little support at home. Faced with such an uphill climb and seeing little hope of success, it can be extremely tryin for even the best-meaning teacher to drive these pupils to overcome their many hurdles and gain educational ground. Some teachers don't have the time; some simply don't have the training and experience; a few believe that demanding too much will derail their careers in education; others don't have the heart, thinking that pushing students damages their fragile self-esteem or cultural identity.

Administrators are in the same boat. To fail students or suspend them can mean an angry parent at their office door, extra paperwork, or political repercussions that go beyond the likely blowback for similar actions in more prosperous neighborhoods.

Just as disadvantaged schools are at risk of demanding less from students, the parents face their own challenges of limited time, educational experience, and school-parenting skills. The resulting all-around low expectations yield low academic results, and produce a dropout rate four times higher among the most economically challenged 20% of students than among for the wealthiest 20%.

But there's good news. Make that great news. In low-income neighborhoods across the country, teachers are showing the world that economic hardship doesn't have to resign students to academic failure. One example after another proves that any school holding to the same expectations as elite schools has a high chance of the same outcomes.

Jaime Escalante – High Standards, High Self-Esteem

Jaime Escalante spent years teaching math in his native Bolivia before joining the faculty of Garfield High School in the hardscrabble barrio of East Los Angeles. He was appalled to see his tenth grade American students struggling to solve problems that fifth graders had mastered in Bolivian classrooms. To him it seemed that because so many of his students were low-income (70%) and minorities (95%) the school administration didn't demand much from them. Standards were low because—the district insisted—that was all that could be expected from kids whose daily life is defined by gangs, drugs, pregnancies, after-school jobs, and whose parents, unable to speak English, were stuck in landscaping and maid-service jobs.

Escalante wasn't buying it. With help and support from his principal, Henry Gradillas (himself a native of the barrio who became an army officer and earned a Ph.D.), Escalante established an intensive math program, including a calculus class designed to raise Garfield students to the highest level. Hours were long and requirements strict and inflexible. Administrators and parents resisted, claiming it was unfair to hold low-income minority students to such expectations. It hurt their grades and damaged their fragile self-esteem. Gradillas insisted that achievement built self-esteem; the effort showed students their full potential and gave them a sense of achievement. High standards, high self-esteem.

Escalante and Gradillas persevered so that by 1982 Garfield students had earned top scores on the national Advanced Placement calculus test. Irregularities in some answers that year prompted graders to suspect cheating. The controversy that followed was the basis for the 1988 Oscar-nominated film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos as Escalante. The '82 students passed a re-test, and the program grew so that by 1987 more than a fourth of all the Hispanic students in the country who took the AP calculus test were from Escalante's program.

His students—children of struggling immigrants—went on to become lawyers, scientists, and college professors. Even for the majority of them whose careers had nothing to do with math, Escalante proved that through hard work and self-discipline they could achieve anything.

Thaddeus Lott – Better Results, Lower Cost

Thaddeus Lott was born in the Heights, a struggling Houston neighborhood where drugs and crime were everywhere but opportunities for success were few. As a rising star among minority educators, Lott decided to go back to Houston to help rebuild his hometown community. When he became principal of Wesley Elementary in 1975, 99% of students were minorities and only 18% of third graders read at grade level on standardized tests.

Varying from standard district policy, Lott instituted traditional direct instruction, intensive practice drills, high expectations for every student, and strict rules of conduct including walking the halls quietly with hands folded. “Lott has no secret technique” reported one observer. “Every student knows what is expected in terms of classroom participation and attention and behavior toward their teacher and each other. Sure and swift discipline enforces the expectation . . . Each child seems confident and eager to participate.”

By 1996, 100% of Wesley Elementary's third graders scored at grade level in reading, compared with 70% for other schools with similar demographics. By that time only 3% of his students required special education classes, compared with 10% in Houston overall, saving the district an average of $1,000 per pupil. His methods achieved far better results at lower cost than standard district policies.

Eventually Lott supervised his own mini-district, overseeing three elementary schools and one middle school, bringing both his high expectations and his superior results to a wider area. Even so, desperate parents continued falsifying their addresses in hopes of getting a place in one of Lott's classrooms. His graduates were eagerly scooped up by magnet schools and private academies looking for high-scoring minority children.

KIPP – A Culture of Achievement

In 1994, fifth grade teachers Mike Fineberg and David Levin started the Knowledge Is Power Program in one Houston school. Today KIPP has grown into a network of 183 charter schools serving 70,000 students. These are free public schools that operate outside the usual mandates of public schools and raise extra money through donations. The number one goal at KIPP, first among their operating principles known as the Five Pillars, is “High Expectations: clearly defined and measurable high expectations for academic achievement and conduct that creates and reinforces a culture of achievement and support.” Expectations are held high throughout the system with a student body nationwide that is 57% black and 39% Latino; 88% qualify for free or reduced lunches.

A study by Mathematica Policy Research found that over three years KIPP students advanced almost a year more on average than traditional public school students in math, reading, and social studies, and more than a year in science. This was despite the fact that KIPP had more low-income and black students that average as well as students with lower baseline math and reading scores. In addition to rigorous instruction, the study cited strict standards of behavior as a key element of success.

“In schools where school-wide behavior standards and discipline policies are consistently communicated and enforced, the school rewards students for positive behavior, and the school punishes students who violate the rules, reading and math scores went up, researchers found. No other school climate factors yielded a statistically significant correlation with academic performance.”

So far, 44% of KIPP alums have earned four-year college degrees; the comparable national average for low-income students is 9%. Those figures and other markers of success have parents begging for more KIPP-style standards. In Houston alone, where it all started, more than 10,000 hopeful students were on the waiting list for a spot in a KIPP classroom for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Success Academy – Precise Expectations

Success Academy is a network of 41 charter schools in New York founded in 2006 by Eva S. Moskowitz, based on academic and behavioral standards she believes are “consistent with expectations of students throughout most of the history of America education.” As with other charter networks, students are chosen by lottery from the community which in this case is overwhelmingly minority and low-income.

Rules are “explicit and expectations precise.” Students wear uniforms and have to sit with their backs straight and feet flat on the floor. Children can expect long days in class, lots of drills, and a strong emphasis on testing. Bad behavior is dealt with quickly and firmly. At Success Academy Harlem 1, the original Success Academy campus, 23% of students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13. At PS 149, which shares the same building and draws students from the same community, the rate was 3%. As Moskowitz explains, “If we don't intervene, when they're 13 that's going to be a bigger problem.” Teachers who transfer from public schools in the city are relieved to learn that chronic troublemakers are removed from their classes rather than returning to disrupt them repeatedly.

Once again high expectations, long hours, and strict discipline get results. In New York City last year, 29% of all students passed the state reading tests and 35% passed math. At Success Academies the pass rates were 64% and 94%. At one public school the pass rate in math was 4%; the Success Academy in the same building with the same demographic profile scored 96%. Last year the Success Academy network received more than 22,000 applications for 2,688 places.

Statistics Confirm Results

Statistical reviews have backed up these academic results in studies going back fifteen years and more. A report published in the Journal of Educational Change found that along with strong institutional support, rigorous academic standards were a key condition for high performance and rapid progress.

Reporting on the dramatic improvement in Massachusetts schools after renewing emphasis on test standards, education researcher S. Paul Reville concluded, “Historically, tests without stakes or with very low stakes have seldom driven change or improvement…meaningful stakes are the direct cause of substantial change in Massachusetts' schools.” Low expectations resulted in poor academic results; an emphasis on standards raised them.

In her dissertation on academic performance in high-poverty schools in South Carolina, Denise Cosby Collier concluded that “high-poverty schools can have academic success with effective leadership [and] high achievement expectations from faculty for students….”*

The Silver Bullet

High expectations are the silver bullet. Wherever they are applied, great things happen: grades go up, graduation rates soar, college application and acceptance rates shoot through the roof. When disadvantaged inner city schools adopt the same mindset and inclusive requirements as elite private institutions, they get the same results. And yet uniform high expectations are not widely promoted. On the contrary, they are heavily criticized in some quarters and resistance to them is sometimes harsh. Only a small percentage of schools embrace them, to the dismay of parents who don't have money for private academies and tutors and will do almost anything to give their children a better shot at success.

If we know what works, why don't we do it? Stay tuned. In our next installment in this series, we'll try to get to the bottom of that question. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your views on this complex and nuanced issue in our comments section.


* sourced from unpublished dissertation from South Carolina State University, 2004.

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