06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Higher Expectations: If We Believe Our Students Can Succeed, They Will

We know the statistics. We've read the headlines. The narrative of Black and Latino students faring worse than their White peers in school has become all too familiar. The achievement gap has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in our classrooms; educators have come to accept the disparity as a given, handing down their bleak outlook to their students. From this pessimistic view, two educational systems have emerged in America: one for White students, and another for students of color. But what would happen if we expected more from our youth?

The late Jaime Escalante demonstrated that when students are expected to reach higher standards, they will work to achieve them. Escalante, the renowned math teacher who inspired the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, urged his James A. Garfield High School students in East Los Angeles to defy the statistics and pass a national calculus exam. No one expected the students to pass--except Escalante. When they passed, officials accused the students of cheating and forced them to retake the test because "those kids" were not supposed to make "those scores." They were later exonerated by passing the test a second time.

Escalante and his students proved that dedicated teachers who invest time in developing the potential of motivated students--with the support of a highly involved community--can achieve remarkable results. Underestimating our students leads to underachievement. If we challenge our students, they will rise to the occasion and succeed.

There may never be another Jaime Escalante, but we all have the responsibility to make sure that our children are not short-changed. Policymakers, teachers, students, and parents all play a role in the success of our schools. Congress and the administration must work together to enforce the high standards put in place by the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). All students should be taught to the highest standards by effective teachers. This legislation is an important first step toward closing the achievement gap by taking targeted approaches to educating students based on their school, rather than through a blanket strategy that attempts to encompass all students.

While continuing to strengthen education legislation is a critical element in improving our schools, parents must also be actively involved in the process. With so many outside factors telling minority students that they are unable to reach their goals, a strong and informed parental unit motivating them to ignore the naysayers is vital.

The strength of our nation's future depends on our students. Let's make sure we give them the tools they need to succeed and the preparation they need to confront the unique challenges they face.