Do High Standards Equal High Expectations?

Expectations

Nov 14

The fourth and final myth about high expectations is the High Standards Myth. This myth leads some to equate high standards with high expectations. They argue that if you raise the standards, you will raise teachers’ expectations. Thus, they judge whether a teacher has high expectations for her students by how high her standards are.

But there is a BIG difference between high expectations and high standards.  The difference between an expectation and a standard is that the standard is the bar and the expectation is our belief about whether students will ever reach the bar.  Thus, it is possible to have high standards and low expectations.

Raising standards is not the same as raising expectations. Holding students more accountable for more and more information does not change what we believe about their ability to master that information.

The bottom line is that raising standards will not raise expectations. In fact, higher standards may actually lower expectations.

[NOTE: Are your standards and expectations in alignment? Matching Expectations to Standards is a powerful tip sheet that reveals the answer. Get access here.]

If teachers already don’t believe that students are capable of meeting their standards, how will they believe that students will be able to meet newer higher standards once the bar is raised?

This came home to me recently when I worked with a group of GT, honors, and AP teachers to help them increase their enrollment of traditionally under-represented students in their courses.

I got to the part of my presentation where I talked about how teachers need to have high expectations of their students even if their students bring academic currencies into the classroom that look different than the traditional ways students use to show that they are smart and that they can handle more rigorous work.

As teachers were working in groups to discuss this concept, I overheard one teacher say, "I have very high expectations of my students. If you looked at my syllabus, you'd see that my standards are VERY high. The problem is, my students come to me missing so many of the basic skills that they can't reach those standards."

I stopped at her table and leaned in to hear more.

"It's really hard to get an A in my classroom," she continued. "I don't believe in dumbing down the curriculum. That's why honors and AP classes aren't for everyone. Not everyone can handle more rigor."

I was horrified but I tried not to show it.

Instead, I pulled up a chair and sat down at her table. "I couldn't help but overhear," I began. "I just want to clear up that high standards is not the same as high expectations."

She looked at me and it was clear that she didn't understand. So I went on. "Your standards are your standards. Your expectations are what you believe about whether students can meet the standards."

Blank stare.

[NOTE: Standards set the bar. Discover 7 strategies to ensure that your assignments and classroom behavior let students know that you think they’re capable of achieving the standards.]

Matching Expectations to Standards

So, I tried again. "You said that you have high standards right?"

"Right," she agreed. "I don't believe we should dumb down the curriculum for students who aren't ready for more rigor. Not every student should be an advanced class."

"You believe that?" I asked.

"Absolutely," she nodded.

"Well those are your expectations."

"That doesn't mean that my expectations are low. I just think that not every student is ready for more rigor," she explained.

"I'm not saying that your expectations are low or high," I replied. "I'm simply saying that there is a difference between your standards and your expectations."

She shrugged as if to say, so what. So, I tried again. "When you equate your standards with your expectations you may end up thinking that you have high expectations just because you have high standards."

More silence.

"But when you examine your expectations separate from your standards, you can detect where you might have lowered expectations and deal with them."

She looked as if she was getting bored so I decided to just get to the point.

So I looked at her directly and said, "You may have high standards, but you have very low expectations of your students."

She began to protest so I repeated her earlier words to her. "You just said that you don't believe that all of your students can meet your standards."

"Yes, but that just means that honors and AP aren't for every student," she protested.

"You also said that it's really hard for any student to get an A in your class."

"Yes," she conceded, "But that's because I don't believe in dumbing things down."

"If the only way for a student to get an A in your class is for you to dumb things down, then we've got a serious problem," I prodded.

She was getting angry. "I'm sorry, but I am NOT going to dumb things down just so that the school system can brag that they have more students in honors and AP courses."

"Why do you think that helping students access and be successful with the standards is the same thing as 'dumbing things down'?" I asked gently.

She stared at me for a moment, but she didn't respond so I went on. "I have never nor would I ever ask you to dumb things down and teach below standard. All I am asking you to do is to provide scaffolds and supports to help ALL of your students meet or exceed the standards. What I am curious about is why you see that as dumbing things down?"

Now she got really defensive. "It just feels like you're asking me to lower my standards."

"Why?" I asked gently.

"Because you want me to make things easier for students," she sputtered.

"And why is that bad?"

For a moment, she wasn't sure what to say.  I waited for a few moments.

 [NOTE: Standards set the bar. Discover 7 strategies to ensure that your assignments and classroom behavior let students know that you think they’re capable of achieving the standards.]

Matching Expectations to Standards

When she didn't say anything I said, "This is why it's important to examine your expectations separately from your standards. I would never tell you to lower your standards. But what I would urge you to do is to take a good look at your expectations. It seems as if you believe that if the work is 'easier' then it means it isn't 'rigorous.' That means that you believe that not all students are worthy of an A because they haven't worked hard enough for it."

"What's so bad about that?" she asked.

"I didn't call it 'bad," I explained. "I'm simply saying that unless you examine your expectations separately from your standards, you aren't really aware of them. And if you aren't aware of your expectations, then you may be sending students a different message than what you intend."

She shrugged again. Whatever.

So I asked finished with this, "The fact that it's hard to earn in A in your class says more about you than it does about your students."

"Yes," she nodded. "It says that I hold the line on standards."

"Maybe," I said as I got up to check on the other groups. "But what else does it say?"

"That I'm a tough teacher," she crossed her arms.

"OK, what else?"

She thought for a few moments and then her expression changed as she considered the possibilities.

"What does it say about your willingness to work with students? What does it say about how you support your students? What does it say about what you believe about your role in the classroom? What does it say about your philosophy as an educator?"

She hung her head and suddenly, I felt awful. I wasn't trying to shame her. So, I sat back down next to her and put my hand on her arm.

"I'm not trying to attack you here," I began. "I just want you to see that your expectations are not your standards. Your expectations are your beliefs about whether or not students can reach your standards."

[NOTE: Discover 7 strategies to ensure that your assignments and classroom behavior let students know that you think they’re capable of achieving the standards.]

Matching Expectations to Standards

She nodded silently.

"There is good news," I said. "If you aren't happy with your expectations, you can change them and you don't have to lower your standards to do so."

I smiled at her and she smiled weakly back. Then I got up to call the rest of the group to order for the next exercise.

She was quiet for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, she waited until the room was clear and then walked over to me where I was packing up my gear for the day. I saw her approach and I said, "I hope that I didn't beat you up too much today,"

Her face was serious. "Not as much as I've been beating up myself."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because as much as I hate to admit it, I realized that I don't have very high expectations of my students." She replied.

I touched her arm, "Then you've made huge progress today and should be celebrating. The first step is to become aware of your expectations. Not many people ever put in the work do examine their expectations. You did and now you can change them."

"I thought I was doing the right thing," she shook her head. "I really did."

I felt for her. So many of us were taught to that high standards were the same as high expectations. While your standards are related, they aren't the same as your expectations.

It's important to hold students to high standards, but it is even more important to believe -- and take steps to ensure-- that students can actually meet those standards. You can ensure that your assignments and classroom behavior let students know that you think they’re capable of achieving the standards by using these 7 strategies.

(Read about the other Myths about High Expectations here, here, and here)

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