Executive Perspective

The Bigotry of Expectations

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

As we grapple with implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, we should focus on its intent. While in my more cynical moments I wonder if the intent wasn’t to prove, once and for all, that public schools are so flawed they are not worth supporting and that vouchers are the only alternative, my higher angels call me to assume the best of those who have promoted the bill. Certainly much about the bill merits support.

It is hard to argue with the idea that we should leave no child behind. We know that has not been true up to now. One great shortcoming of our nation is that we do leave a significant portion of our people behind and that has been true in schools as well.

While evidence is clear that we have improved school performance over time (significantly higher percentages complete school, increasing numbers attend college, etc.), we also must acknowledge that many of our children, especially those trapped in poverty, have been left out of the loop of success.

Those who support NCLB point out that past programs that merely play to the effects of poverty without setting higher standards have harmed the very children we wanted to help. It is also hard to argue with the notion that every classroom should be staffed by a qualified teacher. You can’t argue with the need for assessment to ascertain results. It is even hard to argue that a school that fails some of its children while succeeding with the rest is not a failing school.

Unreal Expectations
So it is hard to argue with the law’s highest intentions. However, I take great exception with its implementation. It was designed by folks who seem not to have been around schools much and who lack the practical understanding of how you make things happen where the rubber meets the road. Thus far the designers haven’t shown much interest in working with folks who do have to carry it out. The law also relies on coercion rather than collaboration as its approach to dealing with people. It seems to equate achievement with test scores and accountability with punishment. And it sets timelines that are out of touch with reality.

But the biggest problem I have with the law is the attitude it assumes about people who work in schools. The president and the secretary of education both have talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” And they are absolutely right. Low expectations doom children to a life half-lived. Education is about helping them soar to their highest possibilities. It is not about clipping their wings. So it is right for them to rail against this form of bigotry. Anyone who works with children must see the nobility of their possibilities.

However, let us also be sensitive to the hard bigotry of high expectations for all while some are left at a disadvantage. I have put it this way before—it is one thing to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but first you need to make sure they are wearing boots.

NCLB presupposes a level playing field that does not exist in many school districts and for many of our children. How can you not leave some children behind when the schools and school districts they attend have been left behind for years? How can you have highly qualified teachers in every classroom when some districts struggle to have any teacher in the classroom?

Spouting Rhetoric
The sad fact about America is that we have tolerated and, in fact, created systems that allow and support tremendous inequity in terms of financing and support. Those systems were not created by educators; they were created by politicians. You can’t have equity outcomes with inequitable resources that shortchange the children most in need. And educators cannot be expected to overcome the effects of systems they did not create. Simply creating a strict system of accountability that points down from on high and out to schools that are often “down and out” themselves will not solve the achievement gaps. Accountability is also appropriate for those who write the checks.

If one child attends school where $3,000 is spent on his or her education and another child attends a school where $10,000 is spent, a different outcome will likely emerge. Simply excoriating the staff of that lower-spending school to work harder and to raise expectations is insulting and really rather silly.

The first year of No Child Left Behind saw a dramatic increase in funding. Yet less than a month after signing the bill into law, the president sent the next budget to Congress that was a flat-line budget for education. You can’t create landmark legislation and then fail to commit to it in the long run. You can’t achieve results simply by spouting the right rhetoric.

While politicians are worrying about making the tax cuts permanent, I hope they also will consider making that same long-term commitment to our children. Otherwise, the soft bigotry of low expectations will be hardened into national policy.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.