Expectations are killing education
Aword that appears repeatedly whenever blame is assigned for poor student test scores is “expectations.” Use of this word should be banned.
That may sound heretical coming from an educator. After all, administrators cite “low expectations” as a reason for achievement gaps in Baltimore’s public charter schools, and studies show that “low expectations” damage student learning. Teachers are told to have “high expectations” for their students because students who are not expected to learn will not learn. I do not disagree, and I trust these findings.
However, I believe that the problem is not with the adjective “low” or that the solution is to replace it with its antonym “high.” The problem is with the noun — expectation. Expectations, low and high, damage the education process, because they corrode the relationships necessary for learning.
Low expectations are the foundations of stereotypes. He/she can’t possibly learn this material because of his/her socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity, family situation, health status and so on. Just pick one or more attributes from the list.
Low expectations result in “fixed mindsets.” Students routinely make statements such as: “I’m not a math person.” “Science isn’t my strength.” “I can’t write.” Frequently students give up on trying to learn a new skill because of these fallacious beliefs.
Low expectations cloud judgement. The practice of “managing expectations” — a favorite of politicians — is a ruse to avoid an objective assessment of performance. You can’t fail if no one expects you to succeed.
But high expectations are also damaging.
High expectations lead to the problem of infinite regression. The professor can’t teach students because their high school didn’t prepare them for college. The students can’t learn in high school because of their poor middle school background. Elementary school didn’t adequately prepare students for middle school and so on. The net result: questionable products marketed for babies to give them a head start on academics.
High expectations produce a sense of entitlement. Just about all teachers have had a student say: “I deserve a better grade because I worked hard.”
High expectations result in being taken for granted. There is no need to thank a person — student, teacher, parent, administrator — for doing what they were “expected” to do.
High expectations can push people into careers and occupations in which they have little talent and/or interest, resulting in wasted opportunities and simmering resentments.
But most importantly, expectations do not advance any goals.
Expectations are not instructional methods. A teacher cannot simply state “I expect you to learn this,” as a substitute for the hard work of actual teaching — that is mastering the subject, reflecting on how to best guide learning, lesson planning and building relationships with students.
Expectations are not programs of study. To master a meaningful skill, students must actively engage with the material, reflect on it, and put in time-consuming study and practice. Believing in oneself, having high self-esteem, being in safe spaces are not causal to the development of any skill set or the acquisition of any knowledge.
Expectations cannot substitute for management. Teachers and students must be given direction from administrators on the actions they should take. An administrative pronouncement that expectations must be high is essentially meaningless because it provides no guidance on actions.
In fact, having “high expectations” is often as much a means for leaders to avoid responsibility as having low expectations. Administrators, consultants, policymakers and politicians can all blame poor outcomes on students and teachers “not meeting their high expectations.” Therefore, failure was not the leadership’s fault. This line of thinking also enables a convenient circular argument — leaders can take credit for successes by virtue of their “high expectations” without ever having to provide actual direction.
Expectations, whether low or high, are always external motivators. Education is most effective, engaging, and productive when all the participants are intrinsically motivated. But this requires building meaningful relationships with the students instead of treating them as statistical data points. People are only intrinsically motivated when they see how their work enhances their relationships with others and contributes to a greater good. This is what education should be about. Expectations of any kind are more of an impediment than a path towards reaching that goal.
Joseph Ganem is professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland and author of “The Robot Factory: Pseudoscience in Education and Its Threat to American Democracy” (RobotFactoryBook.com).