The Impact of Low Expectations in K-12 Education

Reading Leonard Pitts Jr.’s recent post in the Miami Herald, Don’t lower the bar on education standards, reminded me of Darryl’s Robinson’s piece, I went to some of D.C.’s better schools. I was still unprepared for college, published in the Washington Post earlier this year.  Leonard and Darryl are both two different people.  They are from two different generations; their age difference is a couple decades.  But they both share a common narrative that many students who attend low-performing schools experience once in college:  The realization that you did not receive an adequate k-12 education.  It has nothing to do with how intelligent you are or what your mind is capable of learning, but it has all to do with where you were born and the school you attended.

Leonard began his piece by describing the time in college when he realized his SAT score was not as great as as he thought:

As I recall, I scored 960 on my SAT. This was good enough for second best in my class and many congratulations and backslaps from teachers and administrators. Based on that, I thought I’d done pretty well.

So I’m in college, right? Freshman year, and I get to talking with my roommate, this white guy named Reed, about our SAT scores. Reed’s kind of sheepish, finally confessing that he scored “only” about 1200.

That’s when I realized I had not done pretty well. I had done pretty well for a student of John C. Fremont High, in the poverty, crime and grime of South Los Angeles. I had done pretty well for a black kid.

At Leonard’s high school, his SAT score was good.  Maybe Leonard could have scored higher, but one thing Leonard knows for sure is that it stung when he listened to his roommate that day and became aware that his great score was not so great after all.

Then there’s Darryl.  Darryl wrote a piece about how he struggled at Georgetown University because he was not prepared for college rigor.  Here’s what he had to say:

But after arriving on campus before the school year, with a full scholarship, I quickly felt unprepared and outmatched — and it’s taken an entire year of playing catch-up in the classroom to feel like I belong. I know that ultimately I’m responsible for my education, but I can’t help blaming the schools and teachers I had in my early years for my struggles today.

Even though I attended some of the District’s better schools — including my high school, the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, at the Parkside campus near Kenilworth — the gap between what I can do and what my college classmates are capable of is enormous. This goes beyond knowing calculus or world history, subjects that I didn’t learn in high school but that my peers here mastered long ago. My former teachers simply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.

Darryl pushed the education reform dialogue to confront the watered down curriculum offered in a vast majority of low-income public schools.  It makes everyone confront the educational offerings we allow in one community and the ones we give another, and how this ultimately inadequately prepares our college-hopefuls to feel successful in college.

Then there’s me.  My freshman year in college, I had to take remedial math because I was not prepared for college-level mathematics.  Not many people know this, but I failed that course my freshman year.  It was devastating for me.  I never cried so much in my life.  I did not even know how to tell my parents.  I was ashamed.  It was the first time I felt like a failure.  I graduated top 10 in high school, served as vice president of the honor society and was class president all four years of high school, and here I was receiving my first F in a remedial math course.  It made me question my academic abilities, but it also made me realize that the education I received was not good enough.

Leonard’s, Darryl’s or my story is not unique.  There are many students like us who attend public schools every day.  The first time we realize that we did not receive a rigorous, college-ready education is when we enter college.  Leonard’s piece focuses on Virginia and Florida’s decisions to create race-based achievement goals for students.  And Darryl’s focuses on ensuring students can think read, write and think analytically to best prepare them for college.  Like Leonard, I too, wonder just what effect lowering the bar will have on the education students attending schools like we did will receive.  Like Darryl, I advocate for a rich curriculum because I know from experience that my students will need in college.

Leonard, Darryl and students like myself are capable and ultimately end up being successful in life.  In college, we challenge ourselves to persist despite our shortcomings and end up achieving academically.  So ask yourself, if we are able to catch-up while in college, then why isn’t more being done to ensure that we are better prepared?  Some say students in low-income schools cannot achieve at the same levels of their high-income peers or some are too far behind to ever catch-up.  Leonard, Darryl, myself and countless others prove them otherwise in college and in life.  We graduate and make our families and communities proud.

I know that we can give children a rich and engaging k-12 curriculum that ensures that the stories of Leonard, Darryl and myself won’t continue to be the experiences of students who attend schools that primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds who enroll in college.   Let’s not lower standards, but ask ourselves the following question:   How do we create schools that produce critical thinkers and problem-solvers that naturally yield high test scores and our world’s best and brightest leaders?  If these same students can do it in college, surely our schools can do a better job of bringing them up to par in k-12.

Read Leonard’s piece here and Darryl’s here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “The Impact of Low Expectations in K-12 Education

  1. Martha Infante (@AvalonSensei) says:

    Hi Darla,

    I know a lot of students who graduated from Fremont High school with scores higher than Leonard Pitts Jr. I have personal friends who did so also. Is it the student, the school, the parents, or a combination of all of the above? I think its the latter.

    If no student from those schools or yours scored higher than 960, then I would agree that the problem lies solely with the school/curriculum.

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