It’s about two weeks into the school year and we’re settling into routines in my classroom. We’ve practiced classroom rules, completed diagnostic tests and navigated at least three schedule changes. I’m grateful that this school year has had a relatively smooth start, but I know that there are many things that could be better for my students and students everywhere. I had started to compile an ‘ultimate wish list’ for the new school year, but beyond an unlimited supply of pencils and a lifetime ban on spitballs, I realized that everything I want for my students – and all students – comes down to one wish: that we hold all students accountable to higher expectations.
High standards in education have made headlines in recent weeks thanks to the state of Virginia’s new education performance goals. According to Eduwonk.com, Virginia’s standards are “unambitious and race/income/ethnicity based,” and have since been declared unacceptable by the U.S. Department of Education. By 2017, 78 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students in the state are supposed to pass state math tests, while only 59 percent of poor students and 57 percent of black students are expected to pass. It’s true that not all students pass state tests in any given year, in any state. But how can we expect to ever close the achievement gap if states set long-term goals that overlook nearly half of their poor and black students?
Like many teachers, I spend a lot of time in the first week of school talking about goal-setting. Our classroom goals set the tone for our work ethic throughout the school year. If states set such low goals for their students, that mentality trickles down to each district, school, administration and classroom. No teacher should start the school year planning for only half of the class to be successful. As teachers, it’s our job to hold our students to high expectations, and then work as hard as possible to help them get there. These expectations need to be high enough to help them break the cycle of the achievement gap. Clearly, expecting half of our students to master grade-level content isn’t enough.
The lessons that we can learn from Virginia’s mistake are applicable beyond the state-level, too. Individual districts or schools can be just as responsible for setting high standards. MinnPost reporter Beth Hawkins wrote about Adelante College Prep’s first week of school routines in late August. At Adelante, middle school students practice, learn and adhere to very explicit expectations for every procedure during the school day, whether they’re in the hallway, lunchroom or classroom. I can’t emphasize enough how beneficial it is for a school to set such clear expectations, and then hold everyone accountable. Stressing “little things” like hallway behavior and lunchtime manners affect how students respect each other and their school, which of course affects their behavior during instruction. Simply put, starting with high behavior expectations translates into high academic expectations, too.
Anyone involved in education today has a responsibility to push for higher standards for all students in every district, school and classroom. Teachers know that their students can achieve much more than what many people might expect from them – we just need to hold them accountable to get there.
Christina Salter is a MinnCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow.
Photo credit: MinnPost