Guest Column

What Does ‘Raise the Bar’ Really Mean?

by Hank Rubin

Earlier this year I attended a forum where university students and faculty members struggled with the concept of academic rigor. My thoughts turned to rigor’s K-12 counterpart: the nearly universal mantra of “raise the bar.”

Chanted by educators, business people, parents and politicians of every stripe, the notion of raising the bar of acceptable performance has universal appeal. It is to public education what integrity is to political leaders: We all say we value it, we aspire to achieve it and (whether or not we ever do achieve it) the public demands we strive for it.

Finding Meaning
First, let’s be clear about what we don’t mean. Raising the bar is about much more than raising students’ test scores. We do a disservice all the way around if we permit a reductionist interpretation of No Child Left Behind to define the bar of student achievement only in terms of test scores. It is not simply test scores. It is not simply grades. It is not, as I’ve heard proposed in one school district, undoing the decades-old effects of grade inflation by making it more difficult for students to earn grades of A, B or C.

Raising the bar is much more than making schoolwork more difficult or making it harder to get good grades. Raising the bar entails elevating what teachers expect of each student, what each student expects of him or herself and what account¬ability we attach to those expectations.

“Wow, this stuff is hard!” is not preferable to “Wow, this stuff is challenging!” or “Wow, this stuff is exciting!” is it? The purpose of raising the bar should be to elevate in each student the expectation of acceptable academic performance, actual academic (or intellectual) performance and academic (or intellectual) capacity.

As leaders, we are called upon to interpret and communicate the complexities of teaching, learning and human development. As such, let’s say out loud that test scores represent a limited range of the bars we strive to raise. To believe otherwise is tantamount to measuring a basketball game by counting only the number of rebounds. It’s a helpful metric, but it’s incomplete and inadequate.

The metric we use must relate to students’ learning and not just to students’ work. The bar we aim to raise is a highly personalized element of the teaching and learning partnership. This bar is raised each time a teacher lights a fire of academic ambition and personal responsibility in a learner and shares with that learner a mutual accountability for stoking that fire with high expectations, achievement and continuous growth.

Raising the bar is ultimately a highly individualized partnership between professional educators and their students. It requires that we effect changes in students’ behavior and expectations.

The bright young student for whom every lesson seems to come easily (who “gets it” despite seeming to spend no time on homework) is proof that raising the bar is never a group process. Rather, it’s a highly individualized phenomenon. The fact that a class that may be challenging for one student may not be at all challenging for a second student affirms the responsibility of every teacher to be skillful at assessing each student’s ability, challenging each student’s performance, exciting each student’s ambition and developing each student’s capacity to construct new knowledge that is meaningful to him or her on an ever-rising foundation.

Inputs, Outputs
How, some wonder, do we raise the bar in this way while the quality of public support is slipping for students, families and all but the high-stakes testing side of public education? This is an earnest question. But it is akin to asking a pilot how an airplane can take off if no one is supporting the airline industry. The complexity of the challenge goes up, but the laws of physics and aerodynamics don’t change for a pilot intent on flying.

Without discrediting how much easier it is to teach students who come to us prepared to learn and with parents (and social networks) who partner with us for their education, raising the bar has little to do with inputs. It has to do with creating an environment that boosts mutual (teacher and learner) accountability for elevating the expectations, performance and capacity of each student. This is the difference between measuring inputs versus outputs, measuring incoming IQ, readiness or resources versus performance outcomes.

The reality of public education is that we do not choose our students. Instead we accept responsibility for their learning. We cannot raise the bar by raising our admissions standards. We neither have nor seek the luxury of saying to any student or parent, “I’m sorry but you are the weakest link! Goodbye.”

Leaders’ Role
How then do we deal with the impossibility of this challenge? After all, raising the bar is ultimately an idealized aspiration. It entails setting individualized targets with individualized instructional programs not just for students with special learning needs or for gifted students but for all students. While the will exists, the resources don’t.

The only possible answer takes the form of a reminder of what it means to be a leader. It involves fostering and supporting a vision that, while out of reach, inspires striving among principals and teachers in each of our districts.

Our generation has lived through the realization of comparably idealized aspirations (eradication of polio, universal public education, inexpensive personal computers). Raising the bar for each and every one of our students is the challenge we accept as public education’s leaders. It is a sacred cornerstone of our democracy. We are entrusted with its care. At its core is the committed belief that any student who tries to learn can do so. And if we presume otherwise at any time, then we have violated this trust.

Hank Rubin is joint dean of education and professor of educational administration at the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University, 2205 Career Ave., Sioux Falls, SD 57107. E-mail: Hank.Rubin@usdsu.org. He is the author of Collaborative Leadership: Developing Effective Partnerships in Communities and Schools (Corwin Press).