The soft bigotry of low expectations

Yesterday I hit you with the story of my son’s odyssey through school in the era of No Child Left Behind. As you know now, it’s been an interesting one, and one that in many ways illustrates that the warnings offered by Elmore, Kohn, and others about test-driven schooling were awfully accurate. Note here that the piece we read by Elmore appeared in 1997, and the chapter we read from Kohn’s book was published in 1999–eons ago in the world of education policy, especially since NCLB did not become law until 2002. To call them prescient seems like an understatement.

I also left you with a question: is No Child Left Behind more trouble than it’s worth? It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer. At this point you know a good bit about the backstory associated with NCLB. The law is, as you know, the product of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which first became law amid the flurry of legislation promoted by Lyndon Johnson as part of his “Great Society” initiative in the mid-1960s. The original intent of ESEA was to situate schools as key players in the fight against poverty, and to funnel massive amounts of federal funding through them in pursuit of this goal. The expansion of federal funding for public education was so unprecedented that it raised constitutional questions as well as the usual political and ideological ones. This was big government at both its best and worst. To supporters, ESEA represented a thoughtful and forward-thinking attempt to remedy the effects of institutionalized discrimination and poverty by using the full force of the federal government and the power of its purse to attack those problems. To detractors (most of whom, as you know, did not appear until some years later), ESEA came to represent government overreach into an area that had traditionally been reserved to the states, local governments, and, of course, to locally-controlled school boards. Those who questioned the increasing federal influence on school policy had little trouble calling it unconstitutional, anti-democratic, and even tyrannical in spite of the law’s good intentions.

NCLB is, in many ways, a part of this tradition. George W. Bush made a lot of claims about the law, but one of the most widely repeated was that it would address the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that had plagued schooling for many kids, especially African American and Hispanic kids of whom, in Bush’s estimation, little was asked and, as a result, little was received in the way of academic achievement. The assumption behind this statement, to Bush’s critics, was that low academic achievement was partially the fault of schools (and probably teachers), but also partly the fault of students themselves. Bush was attempting to explain that holding students to higher expectations would inevitably lead to better results. Instead of simply distributing money according to a formula that accounted for the socioeconomic circumstances of students, as Title I of ESEA had done for forty years, Bush proposed distributing it only to schools that were raising expectations for all students and demonstrating “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward the seemingly modest goal of ensuring that every student could be declared proficient in reading and math. He also seemed to believe fervently that doing this was in line with the original spirit of ESEA. Bush seems to genuinely have believed that school could eradicate some of the effects of poverty and, moreover, that competition among schools would inevitably give teachers and students the incentive they needed to shape up or ship out.

I have my problems with this way of thinking, not the least of which is that it’s obviously flawed–we’re twelve years into the experiment known as NCLB and very little of what was promised has actually been delivered. If raising expectations and tying funding and targeted sanctions to schools’ efforts to achieve them was, in fact, the key to raising student achievement, you’d think we’d be a lot closer to the proficiency goals outlined in the law. And I think we all know that income inequality and child poverty are problems that not only show no sign of abating but may be worse than they have ever been in the history of this country. At the same time, that phrase–“the soft bigotry of low expectations”–carries an unsettling weight with me. It’s hard not to look back at Jackson’s experiences in school and wonder how much of a role his quiet personality (not to mention a healthy does of disinterest in boring academic work) played in making his test scores seem more revealing than they actually were. I came to realize that my argument to the school personnel I talked to was a lot like the argument George Bush made: it’s very difficult to prove that you’re capable of doing more when you’re always asked to do less. Yesterday Christine asked, toward the end of class, what students can do to get themselves out of situations like these. My answer even depressed me a little: without an adult advocate–a parent, a teacher, a counselor; maybe even without more than one of these, which Jackson eventually had–it’s hard to see how a kid who is not expected to do well can possibly demonstrate greater ability. The weight of expectations is often too great to overcome, and when principals start talking about “data,” it’s really hard to muster an argument that will be taken seriously. Especially if you’re a middle schooler.

Of course there is one simple way Jackson could have solved all his problems: he could have just gotten better scores on his standardized tests. For the record, since moving to an “academic” language arts class this year, Jackson has improved over two grade levels in reading. Statistically that’s very hard to believe. The best explanation is that it’s probably true that he really was a better reader than he showed all along. But still. Being in that other class may not have done much for him academically (the jury is still out on that), but it did do a lot for his confidence. Sometimes that’s all it takes to do better than you’ve ever done before. Does that mean that converting all classes to “academic” classes is the solution here? Most teachers, for a variety of reasons, will tell you it’s not. But it does beg the question: what role are tests, and the concomitant emphasis we place on remediating what’s wrong rather than improving what’s right, playing in limiting the motivation kids have for being in school? And what effect does that have on student success in school? In Jackson’s case the result could well have been devastating. He was in a remedial reading class in 5th grade; by 7th grade, he was within two points in one class of being on the honor roll after a half year of what we were told were the most challenging classes offered at the school. You do the math.

So back to the question that started this post: is NCLB more trouble than it’s worth? On Thursday we’ll spend some time thinking about the good that the law has accomplished and about how its better intentions might be converted into policy that can actually improve education and educational outcomes. I hope being able to put a face to these issues–especially a big smiling face like Jackson’s–will help us keep in mind that the impact of policy is felt in ways that policymakers sometimes never intended.


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