Kids won't learn if we expect
by William Raspberry, 7/29/2002,
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ROD PAIGE and I, black Mississippians of a certain age, were pondering
over lunch the differences between the education we received as
children and the education poor children are receiving today.
''One difference,'' the secretary of education said
at last, ''is expectation. Too many teachers accept as a fact that
certain students can't learn, and therefore they set low levels of
''If a teacher does not believe every child can
learn, and the evidence is that some children aren't learning, the
world seems all right. But if the teacher believes all children can
learn, and some children aren't learning, then there is a problem that
That may come as close as anything I've heard
recently to explaining what is happening to poor children in America's
Too many of us - and not, by any means, just
teachers - have accepted that many of our children really cannot learn
very much. We bemoan that fact. We are deeply sorry that it's true,
and we are handy with a grocery list of culprits. But fundamentally,
we believe that the children of what is called the underclass can't
Paige sees the evidence for this belief (which we
seldom acknowledge out loud) in our resistance to national testing and
national (and international) standards.
I see it more pervasively. America's black leaders,
back in the day, took it as their key responsibility to get us ready
to compete in an unfair world. Today's leadership, or so it seems to
me, sees its primary responsibility as protesting the unfairness.
The difference is between remedying
underperformance and merely explaining it.
When Paige and I were boys, explanations of black
disadvantage were so obvious as to be pointless. The thing our people
needed, our leaders kept reminding us, was to do well in spite of the
disadvantage, to become productive, to make ourselves necessary.
Today's leaders put less emphasis on what we must do and more on what
is done to us.
They aren't wrong. But the unintended consequence of
their emphasis is to make us feel more like powerless victims of
circumstances we can't control and less like individuals capable of
''One result,'' says Paige, closing the circle, ''is
that many of today's teachers seem more willing to accept substandard
work and substandard effort, and reluctant to hold kids to high levels
of expectation - as though it's unfair to expect much of them. I
learned from my coaching days (he was a college football coach before
he was a school administrator and superintendent of the Houston public
schools) that making quick judgments about kids' ability to learn is
dangerous. Kids have to be given a chance to develop.''
And so, he says, do schools and teachers. He hopes a
hallmark of his tenure will be real progress in narrowing the gaps
between rich and poor and black and white American students, but also
the gaps - particularly in math and science - between American
students and their international competitors.
By expanding school choice, if necessary.
''The first thing we have to do is to enable
success,'' he said. ''My approach would be to ask principals and
teachers what they need by way of resources to make their schools
successful, and I would try to supply it. And after a year, if they
were still not progressing, I'd go back and ask them what other
resources they might need. And after that, I'd put my focus on the
kids, and I'd want to look at the behavior of the professionals in the
school. There must be consequences for failure.''
It's unfair to Paige to suggest that he spent the
whole time talking about black children. He talked about education in
America. But he shares my sense of urgency for the children who are in
danger of being left permanently behind.
''I've seen the evidence in islands of excellence
all over America,'' he said. ''These children can achieve. It's up to
us as a community to take responsibility when they don't."