Before I was a school administrator, I was a soldier – for nearly twenty-two years. I enlisted in December 1974 following the end of the Vietnam War. Not because I was patriotic. I needed a job. Our economy was taking a beating largely due to the oil embargo and the start of rampant inflation. During basic training that next spring Saigon fell. Mostly what I recall from that day was my big, burly drill sergeant crying like a baby. It was a low point in what would be nearly a decade of low points for the once-infallible United States Armed Forces. Years of persistently low morale, lack of organizational pride, leadership that abandoned their careers faster than rats on a sinking ship, and rampant drug use came to a climax with the “Debacle in the Desert” in the spring of 1980.
“The supersecret operation failed dismally. It ended in the desert staging site, some 250 miles short of its target in the capital city (of Iran). And for the world's most technologically sophisticated nation, the reason for aborting the rescue effort was particularly painful: three of the eight helicopters assigned to the mission developed electrical or hydraulic malfunctions that rendered them useless.”
By now, the American people had little faith in the capability of its military complex and support was at an all-time low. Many of us rarely wore our uniforms in public and leaders accepted a culture of disobedience and disrespect from the lower ranks. Recruiting quotas in active and reserve units were rarely achieved, and there was a feeling among the soldiers that if the Cold War stalemate were to break on the European front, our forces in Germany would serve as nothing more than a speed bump. There was no expectation that we would achieve success.
Then came the Reagan-era beginning with the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan as 40th President of the United States. And despite your political or personal beliefs about that era and Reagan himself, one thing he certainly did was lead a restoration of faith in our Armed services. He refused to accept that we could not restore our military strength and again lead the world-wide fight for freedom and democracy. He raised the bar while providing the needed supports and by 1991, following a decade of escalating and successful military expeditions that included the end of the 40-year Cold War, the United States Armed Forces were once again seen as competent and a great source of national pride. Obviously, Reagan didn't do it alone but the example he modeled from the top by steadfastly refusing to accept what had become a culture of low expectations firmly set the historic transformation in motion.
This is the beginning of the path to positive educational reform in America. Real reform cannot be successful until political and educational leaders – including most importantly our teachers – change our mental models, first about our students and then about our schools, restoring our belief in their abilities to achieve. We can build a hundred or even a thousand half-billion-dollar Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools but without the critical mindset of staff, parents, community and students believing that every child who walks through the door can achieve, all we'll be left with is another expensive monument to a growing mediocrity.
How does that happen when every day, educators across this country are bombarded with negative messages that convey a persistently expanding lack of belief in the competence of our public education system? Just imagine if President Reagan had decided the only way to reform our military and greatly improve on its capability was simply to fire all the sergeants, lieutenants and captains and replace them with inexperienced leadership. What would have been the chances of a successful Desert Storm in 1991? Or, perhaps, he might have decided that a government-run military is no longer capable of being successful, so let's get rid of it and replace it with a privately-run security system. Dare we think of placing our future security in the hands of companies like, oh, say Blackwater?
Not likely. Nor should we expect that the future success of our educational system rests with mass firings and expanded privatization. And at the same time, given our national pension for blaming the current economic woes on our schools, something that has become almost a sport in the political and “billionaire-boys-club” arenas, don't expect a Ronald Reagan to lead a similar national conversion of faith in public education. If public schools are to remain the mainstay of our educational system, it will be up to the teachers and principals, and it will begin when we turn our individual and collective backs on a culture of low expectations.
The Chilean mine rescue earlier this fall is another great example of setting high expectations for success. Following the cave-in that trapped thirty-three miners nearly a half-mile underground, their fate at best was uncertain. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was told by advisers that expectations for success were low and chances of their survival were slim. But the President refused their advice.
“Many people thought the rescue was impossible,” said an exuberant Piñera after having shown Churchillian determination during the rescue effort. “But we made a commitment to look for the miners as if they were our own sons.” Time
Instead of capitulating to an established culture of low expectations surrounding mine rescues, he set in motion and led an intense rescue effort, sparing no expense. His belief that the operation could be successful led to the eventual emergence of all thirty-three miners.
As I hinted above, true educational reform begins in the classroom and the school house, not on the floor of Congress or in a television studio. We know from the data that many of our so-called failing schools are in urban areas with high concentrations of limited-income and minority students, a growing number of which do not speak English as their first language. A high percentage of these students do not enjoy the same parent support as their more affluent suburban neighbors, and have greater risks to exposure to high levels of crime, gang activity, unemployment, homelessness, and single-parent households. All of these have statistically been shown to contribute significantly to low levels of academic achievement and high drop-out rates, despite a few pockets of success in rare but not necessarily replicable charter schools. But teachers and administrators can have little impact towards changing any of these social factors. Our work must be done in classroom but if we continue to maintain low expectations for students in these situations, no matter how many strategies we employ, we will not be successful at closing achievement gaps and turning public education around.
Teachers' expectations play a significant role in influencing student performance, determining how well and how much students learn. This has been proven time and time again since the idea was first presented in Pygmalion in the Classroom, a 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.
“Simply put, when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways.” ~ James Rhem
There's a monograph by Jerry D. Bamburg posted on the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory website that goes into great detail on the three different types of teacher expectations that contribute significantly to student achievement. It's well worth the read by anyone interested in contributing to real education reform, particularly in our urban schools. The Pygmalion effect is one of two results from teacher interactions with students that are influenced over time by lowering expectations. A student who persistently struggles in school may be seen as part of a social-class that over time, always appears to achieve at lower levels. Hence, the result of a perception of low achievement in the classroom eventually becomes a key contributing factor as to why students are failing, and even an excuse for lowering our expectations in the future. A sort of wagging-the-dog-by-the-tail effect as time goes on: student behavior is impacted by opinions and perceptions that others initially have for them which in turn become self-fulfilling prophecies.
I'm not going to go into a long thesis in this forum on specifically how low expectations are manifested in the classroom, both through words and deeds, but just to say that teachers and school principals are usually unaware that they have low expectations for students (Marzano) and that unless we start changing our behaviors towards our students, a conscious awareness of this bias will have little positive effect. If all President Reagan did was make rosy speeches about our military might, very little would have changed. It took outward visible action to raise the level of expectation.
The second of nine characteristics of high performing schools outlined by Dr. Terry Bergeson, Washington State Superintendent of Instruction, defines what it takes to demonstrate high standards and expectations for all students:
“Teachers and staff believe that all students can learn and meet high standards. While recognizing that some students must overcome significant barriers, these obstacles are not seen as insurmountable. Students are offered an ambitious and rigorous course of study.”
The first two sentences demonstrate the belief while the third sentence combines action.
“High standards and expectations require more than lip service. The mantra “all students can learn” must be followed by instructional practices and teacher behavior that demonstrate that teachers believe in the students, believe in their own efficacy to teach students to high standards, and will persist in teaching them. Teaching advanced skills and teaching for understanding together with basic skills are required for all students to achieve at high levels.”
So on this National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform, let's turn our focus to what will truly make a difference in the achievement levels of our students. If you haven't yet begun, start by having professional conversations around what it means to have low expectations and what it will take individually (yes, you do need to risk vulnerability if you truly want to see change) as well as corporately to transform the culture of your school to one of high expectations for all. Jonathan Saphier provides a powerful but simple recipe for raising students' belief in what they are doing:
“All students receive three critical messages at every turn from every adult and from the policies, practices, and procedures of the organization:
What we're doing here is important.
You can do it.
I'm not going to give up on you – even if you give up on yourself.”
As cited in Tim R. Westerberg's Becoming a Great High School, ASCD, 2009
This may just be the most important step you take toward reforming public education in the 21st century.