Ex­pec­ta­tions are killing ed­u­ca­tion

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Joseph Ganem

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).

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