Connecting the dots and breaking the cycle of low expectations

What do the following three scenarios have in common?

Scene 1: This story about soon to be former DC Chancellor of Schools, Michele Rhee comes from a comment left on my blog a few weeks back by Susan Graham –

Rhee told of a teacher who put masking tape on first graders’ mouths to keep them quiet and how their lips bled when the tape was removed. This same teacher took children on a field trip without collecting parent contact information. When a 7-year-old didn’t know his address at the end of the day, this teacher eventually left the him with “someone in the neighborhood who recognized him.”

Rhee is right. Incompetent teachers should be dismissed. But, in spite of this ineptitude during three years of teaching in a Baltimore charter, DC Public Schools hired this alternatively certified teacher.

The incompetent teacher is Michelle Rhee. And as she shared her first year “war stories” with her new teachers, do you know what they did? They laughed.”

Scene 2: In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond shares the experience of a new teacher who was a recent graduate of one of the nation’s top schools of education.

She [the new teacher] described how two first-year teachers, in an effort to be helpful, took her aside to offer advice. The two had entered the classroom through a program that offered only a few weeks of summer training, and both of them had struggled throughout the year. They wanted to share with this novice what they had learned on the job. ‘The first thing you need to understand,’ the two told her, ‘is that you really have to yell at these students. It’s the only thing they understand.’ Their struggles continued, neither of the two returned for a second year of teaching. (p. 208).

Scene 3: Back in March 2009, I shared an important, but disturbing article written by former National Council of Teachers of English President, Kylene Beers in which she [explored] the growing trend of “segregation based on intellectual rigor” in urban schools. [News flash, it happens in rural schools too.] Beers argues that poor students are being subjected to pedagogical segregation—condemned to lower expectations and mind-numbing basic drills. What I find most chilling in the article, however, is the condescending attitude of the principal and teachers that they are helping the students by imposing test-drill methods and what Beers calls “militaristic” disciplinary procedures. The staff make frequent references to the students’ chaotic home lives, and their need for structure.

Step back and connect those dots. Low expectations linked (or perhaps leading to) an over-zealous desire to control behavior through overly strict routine and busy-work drills [bad teaching is a frequent result of low expectations]. Some students in these settings succumb, which has the dual effect of reinforcing both the low expectations and possibly causing an artificial bump in test scores. Both these results only reinforce the behavior of the adults. Other students may resist the underlying assumptions of their inferiority, or just can’t take the boredom, and are labeled as behavioral problems or maybe even learning disabled. It’s a vicious cycle in which the children of the poor in too many schools (public or charter) find themselves, and which we as educational professionals have a moral obligation to break.