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Last Updated: 03/12/2018

 Article of Interest - Education & Success

Kids won't learn if we expect failure

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 expectation.

''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 demands answers.''

That may come as close as anything I've heard recently to explaining what is happening to poor children in America's inner cities.

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 learn.

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 significant achievement.

''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."

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