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Larry Strauss Headshot

The Real Racism in Our Schools -- Low Expectations or Delusional Thinking?

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In the mid-1990s, the school district I work for informed all the high schools that they were no longer allowed to teach basic math. No student could study anything lower than Algebra 1. Math teachers who challenged the ruling, who asserted that many of their students still could not perform basic math operations, were told that they were expressing a racist point of view.

It was an understandable accusation. For a long time the schools in our city had been segregated by race and socio-economics and the students who were African American and Chicano were mostly receiving an inferior education driven by low expectations. The fact that the district's basic math classes were overwhelmingly filled with "minority" students was -- or at least should have been -- an embarrassment to everyone.

But embarrassment and outrage and a passion for justice and equal opportunity do not magically make a child know how to add fractions.

Or write a coherent paragraph, which many students enter my advanced placement English classes unable to do. Many of us who teach under these conditions make adjustments. We remediate on the fly and encourage and cajole and try not to water-down our curriculum while we're trying to achieve full inclusion.

And we worry about the dishonesty of it all. We worry that academic integrity is being sacrificed in favor of political correctness and self-esteem. We worry that children are being given an unrealistic image of themselves academically and that those images will ultimately be smashed.

And thanks to all the test-driven accountability, we are wary of the impact of such institutional and institutionalized delusion on the standardized test scores of our students. If a math teacher has to spend most of his algebra one course teaching what the students should have known before entering the class, his or her students aren't likely to perform well on an algebra test. As long as such tests are a measure of teacher performance -- implicitly or explicitly -- it is not unreasonable us to want a fighting chance to be successful by those measurements.

Beginning with next year's freshmen class, the district for which I still work will no longer allow teachers to give a student the letter grade D -- which until now has been sufficient to graduate high school but not to enter a four-year university. A disproportionate percentage of Ds in our district are assigned to children of color and this move is, at least in part, an attempt to compel teachers to do more to increase student performance in our classes.

It's a radical move which seems likely to produce one of three outcomes:

1 -- More students will fail more classes.
2 -- More students will be given a C they didn't really earn because teachers feel sorry for them or because teachers don't want the embarrassment of failing so many students or because teachers feel pressure not to fail so many students.
3 -- Students will be self-motivated and teacher-inspired to work harder in order to meet the new standards and pass their classes.

I don't know of a teacher who doesn't believe in the third outcome -- but nor do I know one who doesn't recognize the likelihood of the others.

I think it is fair to argue that while low expectations have been a destructive force for underserved children, equally destructive are the institutionalized delusions that confuse high expectations with fictional achievement. Inflated report cards and self-esteem won't get our students through college; they won't get them jobs or help them keep those jobs.

And yet, I find myself ambivalent on this issue because I have seen the transformative power not only of high expectations but of exaggerated belief in a student.

A sophomore mistakenly placed in my American lit class answered an introductory class questionnaire with an angry diatribe about the state of our country and something about the passion of her anger -- along with the fact that she was a year younger than the other students (though it was a clerical error and not an intentional advancement that had put her there) made me impressed with her writing. I told her that she was a really good writer. "I'm sure you've heard that before," I said and she replied, "No. No one ever told me that." And I said, "Well, someone should have." She ended up earning an A in my class, working very hard in English for the next two years, becoming editor of our school newspaper and getting a scholarship to a very good private university. She did a summer internship with a major newspaper and published several articles with her own by-line, and ultimately earned a graduate degree and is now a working professional. At one point during her senior year, I came across a copy of that paper of hers that initially had caused me to compliment her writing and realized how badly written it was. I don't know what got into me when I'd praised her so much but I know what got into her: confidence and hope.

We have to be realistic about who we are teaching and their level of knowledge and skill, but we should never underestimate children and their ability to learn. If we believe in them and can somehow get them to believe in themselves, they can overcome prodigious deficits in remarkable time.

My first year in the classroom I had a student who struggled mightily with reading and writing but tried her best to do every assignment and would rewrite things three or four or five times until I'd give her an A for it. Our school was an organizational mess back then and it wasn't until after she had gotten admissions papers from a local state university -- and literally jumped for joy -- that I discovered that she was a special education student with what someone had diagnosed as severe learning disabilities. Discovering all that, I worried about her attending the university and smacking up against the low ceiling of her intellectual aptitudes, but my apprehensions were wrong. She knew how to work hard and she knew how to ask for help. She graduated college in five years.

She probably didn't even belong at our high school in the first place -- since we had no special education teachers. Our school was negligent for ignoring her disability.

And that negligence turned out to be the greatest thing we could have done for her.