Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Standards and Expectations: Are They Related?


ccording to government statistics, the federal government spent over 200 billion dollars to implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The goal of the ESEA was to improve the nation's public schools. In 2001, faced with the failure of those reforms to meet the needs of the nation's neediest children, President Bush proposed the expenditure of another 50 billion dollars to ensure that "no child is left behind."

A government document describing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education plan made it clear that higher standards were seen as a key factor in that effort. In a forward to the document, President Bush states,

"It's time to set high standards for what children should know and be able to do, to give our schools the tools they need to help children reach those high standards, and to demand that they reach them." President Bush then went on to talk about "…how we can raise expectations for our children and reach those expectations in classrooms everywhere."(1) [emphasis added]

In the NCLB document, President Bush is quoted as saying, "Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything else. It is the soft bigotry of low expectations." This is a powerful statement. A wealth of research supports the program's claims that children show great progress when their teachers hold high expectations for them. [emphasis added]

The plan promised to support teachers with high-quality training and an infusion of money. On the surface, this sounded very promising. But it is no longer sufficient to accept high-sounding rhetoric that appeals to our deep concern for children. We must begin to ask hard questions. What evidence is there that standards raise expectations?

What Are Standards?


he NCLB document continually juxtaposes the words standards and expectations, building on the unquestioned premise that raising standards will raise expectations. Is that a valid conclusion? Let's take a closer look.

Standards are external criteria against which products are evaluated. According to the dictionary, a standard is "something established for use as a rule or basis of comparison in measuring quantity, quality, value, etc." The 1995 document, National Standards in American Education: A Citizens Guide(2) stated:

"Americans…expect strict standards to govern construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels; shoddy work would put lives at risk. They expect stringent standards to protect their drinking water, the food they eat, and the air they breathe…. Standards are created because they improve the activity of life." (pp 8-9)

The document asserted that, just as such standards improve the daily lives of Americans, so too will they improve the effectiveness of American education: "Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected." (p 25). Notice that this statement is worded as an established fact! But is it a valid premise?

As powerful as these words are, they overlook a very important distinction. The standards to which the document refers apply to inanimate objects—buildings, bridges, drinking water, food, and air. Can one effectively apply the same type of standards to living, breathing, thinking organisms who are inherently different and may well resist being shaped into "standard" products? Inanimate materials have no choice about what they will become. Children do!

What are Expectations?


he No Child Left Behind Act claimed to address the problem of teachers who hold low expectations for some students because of their race or socio-economic class. It states, "Well-crafted and thoughtful standards will explain in plain language what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of each grade." It goes on to say that these standards will ensure the same high expectations for all students.

Again, the terms standards and expectations are used as synonyms. But in truth, they are very different. The dictionary defines expectations as "something a person looks for or anticipates." Standards represent minimum external criteria for a "product" to be acceptable. Expectations are not only internal to the individual, but are based on that individual's beliefs! What a person expects may be anything from below minimum standards to well above standard. It is possible to have extremely high expectations without any standards whatsoever. Conversely, and this is too often the case in education, it is possible to have very low expectations even when the external standards are extremely high.

Unfortunately, all teachers don't share high expectations for their students. Studies have shown that the expectations of teachers often vary for students labeled as so-called remedial, average, and honors, as well as for different cultural or socioeconomic groups. Worse, some research studies have strengthened those teachers' beliefs, finding that disadvantaged students often demonstrate less progress than their more privileged classmates. But isn't this circular reasoning? Isn't it likely that one reason these students do poorly is those same low expectations? Not to mention that the measures use to assess "progress" have never been challenged.

No Child Left Behind apparently assumed that, if all students are held to the same standards, teachers would be forced to work as hard (or harder) with students for whom they hold lower expectations as they do with their "good" students. According to this reasoning, these students would then get equal opportunities they didn't previously have. This is, of course, an admirable goal. NCLB's developers obviously believed that if a teacher's livelihood depended on how well her students did on high-stakes tests, she might feel compelled to work harder with students she believed to be less capable. While this may occur, it does not equate to raising expectations.

If, as a teacher, you know that every student in your class will be held accountable for an externally generated list of facts and concepts, does that really change what you believe about a particular student's ability to learn those facts and concepts? Does it really raise your expectations about that student?

Raising the Bar

Another metaphor common in the standards movement—raising the bar—provokes a similar question. Before a jumper can clear that bar, he must possess and refine the fundamental skills involved in jumping. The coach assists the jumper in learning and improving those skills. But if the coach begins with the belief that the jumper has little natural ability, how does raising the bar change the coach's expectation for the jumper?

There is no simple cause-and-effect relationship between the imposition of standards and a teacher's expectations. Equating standards with expectations fails to confront the fundamental issue—the inappropriate and unfounded beliefs of some teachers that create low expectations for some students. The belief that the imposition of rigorous standards will result in higher expectations was a fundamental, but seriously flawed, premise of the entire No Child Left Behind program and all other standards-based programs that followed. The expectations of teachers will change only when they change their beliefs—and changing beliefs requires exploring the foundations on which those beliefs are based. The only thing any of us can directly change is ourselves—and that only occurs when we recognize the damage our current beliefs are causing to ourselves and others.

  1. No Child Left Behind Education Act. Document available at http://www.ed.gov
  2. National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide (1995)

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