The Low Rhetoric of High Expectations

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

At Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow calls out the casual use of the phrase “high expectations.”    It’s de riguer for education reformers to claim high expectations for schools and children.  “But scratch the surface of their rhetoric,” Claus writes, “and you’ll find that some of them have expectations that are really quite low.”   His list:

  • Low Expectations for Assessments. Many state tests are lousy. For some reformers, though, lousy is good enough to determine the fate of teachers and students alike.
  • Low Expectations for Curriculum. Foreign language has all but disappeared from elementary schools. High school research papers have been a rarity for years. But c’mon–What can you expect at a time when we have to boost scores on those lousy math and reading tests?
  • Low Expectations for Policymakers. It’s just way too expensive to level the economic and social playing field for poor children. We can gush over the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), but you just can’t expect policymakers to strengthen poor communities. We might as well expect schools alone to do the job.
  • Low Expectations for Kids. We’d love to help poor students become creative, inventive, sophisticated thinkers, but we have to focus on academic triage because resources are scarce. All that other stuff seems pretty touchy feely, anyway.

The rhetoric of high expectations has long been a sore point for me.  As a practical matter, too many of us are content to set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.  Here’s my litmus test:  if every child in the U.S. read on grade level and graduated from high school on time, would you call that a success?  Of course you would.   So if your child reads on grade level and graduates on time — nothing more, nothing less — would you count him or her as well-educated?  

“The rhetoric of high expectations will remain,” Von Zastrow concludes.  “It’s far more resilient than the reality.”


  1. The problem with the phrase “high expectations” is that it can mean two very different things: high standards and high hopes. Compare “We suspended him because he did not meet our high expectations regarding behavior.” with “Incoming 9th graders had high test scores, so we have high expectations for the test scores in 9th grade algebra.” It is simply more precise and helpful to replace “high expectations” with better language. I have stopped using it altogether and I encourage everyone else to do the same.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 17, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  2. I don’t know what reasonable high expectations mean for my 12 year olds because I don’t really know what they’ve learned before entering my classroom. I find abysmal ignorance of geography among most but not all students. I go to the elementary school to investigate and find that, theoretically, they’ve had heavy exposure to US and California geography in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades (though no world geography). Yet many cannot even name the largest city in California and almost none know that Mt. Whitney is the highest peak. How can we establish reasonable expectations when kids’ preparation is so haphazard?

    Comment by Ben F — December 17, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

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