When it comes to picking a school in a new town or new neighborhood, parents are quickly told by those “in the know” which school is the best and which school is the worst. In most cases, without further ado, we accept the opinions of our friends and neighbors as fact, and this is especially true when we find out that our school is the “best” one.
What is striking is that when we take the time to actually ask someone why they believe one school to be the best, the answers often have very little to do with academics. Parental involvement, yes. Enthusiasm around school events and fundraising, yes. Sports team prowess, yes. How much “better” their school is the one across town, yes.
And so begins a narrative about an “amazing” school that isn’t challenging kids or knocking it out of the park in academically meaningful ways but that does shine in the ways that make us feel connected and proud of our communities.
I fear that we, as well-meaning parents, just may be kidding ourselves. We don’t mean to do it. It’s the nature of being a parent. If my child is “earning” high grades in school, who am I to doubt their academic success? An A is an A, right? Mastery is mastery, right?
There are countless schools whose standards are simply too low, where critical thinking is lacking and the level of challenge is minimal. I am driven to say this based on my experience as a teacher in three states, a school board member, and most importantly, a mother of three young sons.
A Culture of Low Expectations
An academic culture of low expectations is harmful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the false message it sends to parents.
How are we supposed to know that grades are inflated and that there are schools just a few miles away in which our child’s A’s would likely be C’s? How are we to know that our son or daughter’s immeasurable potential is being stunted by a pervasive culture of low standards? How are we to know that the high school valedictorian from our town’s high school wasn’t prepared enough to pass her freshman year of college?
This far-too-common culture of low expectations is a concern in all types of communities, including mine. However, the concern rises to crisis level in the underprivileged communities where this “soft bigotry of low expectations” is most prevalent, where parents and guardians lack the capacity to adequately mitigate the schools’ shortcomings.
Trips to the zoo, visits to ball parks and museums, and even conversation packed with rich vocabulary all make a difference in a child’s development; those who don’t have exposure or access to these things are at a marked disadvantage. Low expectations in school set them even further back and perpetuate the insidious myth that they aren’t capable of challenging work.
Let’s Do Our Homework
While parents will always turn to other parents for the skinny on the “best” schools, they can also do their homework by turning to some objective data, online resources such as GreatSchools.org and state report cards that now offer a much richer picture of school performance than test score proficiency—with parent comments, student surveys, and school culture measures.
Too often, parents seek these objective measures only when comparing prospective schools. But they also can serve as a much-needed reality check after families “fall in love” with their current schools and stop looking for potential shortcomings. It’s natural to put on the blinders once a “relationship” with a school starts, but it could come at a steep price in student learning.
Never Too Late for High Expectations
Raising the bar can happen fast. I’ve seen it.
Creating a culture of higher expectations not only gives parents a more truthful picture of their child’s academic performance but, perhaps more importantly, it communicates to kids that we believe in them and know they can stretch themselves to learn more, achieve more, and do more.
And that’s so much better for their futures than showering them with easy work and meaningless A’s.