Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham posts a pair slides of 7th-grade writing assignments from two different middle schools in California, culled from a presentation by Ed Trust. In the first, students are asked to submit a detailed character analysis of Anne Frank; the second asks students to write about “my best friend” or “a chore I hate.” The point is stark and obvious. ”When you hear people talk about the expectations gap, this is the sort of thing they are talking about,” Rotherham writes.
Would that it were so simple as “raising expectations.” In the comments section, the smart and fiery John Thompson, an occasional contributor to this blog, describes a disappointing exercise at his Oklahoma City high school similar to the one posted by Eduwonk, and gets to the heart of the empty slogan that is “high expectations.”
Had it been done as a wake-up call, and a first step towards raising standards, it would have been constructive. Had they asked why some teachers wrongly lowered standards too much, making class dull, it would have been a great professional development tool. Had they addressed the extreme classroom disruptions in neighborhood 7th grade classes that make it virtually impossible to do more than busywork, it would have been a contructive excercise….But our district leaders had the the same visceral response as you seem to be having, and mandated immediate and much much higher standards. Instantly, many core teachers were intimidated into teaching five years above the students reading level, and failure rates soared to 95% in some. The dropout rate exploded and the distrcit immediately abandoned the experiment.
“The reality is so shameful, when administrators/lobbyists with no relevant experience in the classroom come in contact with it, they have no idea how complex the problem is,” writes Thompson. ”Then when the consultants offer the simple and free solution of just “raise expectations,” the blame and shame game takes over, and the students are hurt even more.”
In my own comments on Eduwonk, I point out that curriculum is an undiscussed piece of the “high expectations” dodge. To John’s point, students don’t just show up in middle school five years behind their higher-achieving peers. You can’t feed kids a thin gruel of content-free, “self-directed” reading and writing for their entire academic career and then expect them to suddenly be able to write a nuanced character study of Anne Frank in the 7th grade. You can’t ask kids to do “self-directed” writing about their family, their friends and their personal experiences throughout elementary school to the exclusion of nearly all else, then expect them to dazzle you with their insights into literature in middle school.
The policy community, alas, continues to be nearly silent on curriculum, focusing instead on incentives, “teacher quality,” and other structual issues. Read Eduwonk’s post and the responses. May I humbly submit that the time has long since come to a) start looking at what students are actually being taught and, b) listening to teachers?