The Problem With Telling Students They Just Need The Right Attitude To Succeed

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It was President George W. Bush’s speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who first coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Speaking to the NAACP back in 2000, Bush referenced the various forms of historical discrimination black people have faced, such as Jim Crow laws, and acknowledged that discrimination still manifests itself in other ways, such as police profiling.

“And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush continued. “A great movement of education reform has begun in this country built on clear principles: to raise the bar of standards, expect every child can learn… Government can spend money, but it cannot put hope in someone’s heart or a sense of purpose in someone’s life.”

This idea — that the locus for change is found in a person’s temperament and outlook on life, which depends entirely on higher standards and “no nonsense” teachers who encourage personal responsibility and perseverance — was a central part of a speech largely focused on using standardized test scores to measure how well schools were serving disadvantaged student populations, including black and Hispanic students.

In 2002, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, popularly known as “No Child Left Behind,” was signed into law. The idea was that if we create high expectations for schools, and tie funding to meeting those expectations, schools will succeed at delivering better results for students. The problem was that there were very harsh penalties for schools that couldn’t meet these benchmarks, and that high-poverty schools have a harder time meeting these benchmarks. The problem of “attitude” trumping lack of resources and other systemic problems was applied to struggling schools.

Although No Child Left Behind was recently rewritten with a bipartisan replacement, the idea that perseverance and high expectations trump all barriers continues to show up in conversations about education policy.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who is running for president, used the phrase during a recent interview at an education forum. You don’t need to look very far to see other political figures and policy folks talking about “raising expectations” and “creating high standards” for students, especially now that many states have implemented Common Core standards, an idea that actually was embraced by the Reagan administration.

It’s a concept that’s made its way beyond politics and policy, too. The popular 2013 book How Children Succeed argues that students can overcome all kinds of barriers if they have the right kind of disposition — and particularly if they have enough “grit.”

Now, some charter schools, magnet schools, and traditional public schools embrace the concept of teaching students the importance of certain values. The Knowledge is Power Program charter school network, or KIPP for short, is one of the best-known examples. KIPP focuses on teaching students seven important character traits: grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. Some schools have also embraced “No Nonsense Nurturing,” which expects “100 percent compliance” of students and only praises outstanding effort. Achievement First charter schools in Connecticut are another example. Achievement First has acknowledged a history of “unacceptable” high suspensions in 2013, and said it is working on the issue.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praising certain character traits, such as being kind to other people, or telling students that you have high expectations for them. But there’s a question of which kids are mainly receiving these messages.

Dennis Parker, director for racial justice at the ACLU, wonders why a more “structured” and “no-nonsense” environment is generally reserved for black and Hispanic students.

“Now I don’t want to say no one should be allowed to do that, or that isn’t the best thing for some kids, but I wonder if the some kids are always black or Latino kids,” Parker said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “For a white student, there may be more of a tendency to think to ask, ‘Why this is going on?’ but in the case of a student of color there is a sense of this is a cultural thing with this kid. He doesn’t have enough discipline or structure. So you come to discipline with expectations about the student that can be damaging.”

There is a long history of schools criminalizing what is simply noncompliant behavior on the part of black and Hispanic students — such as talking back to a teacher — whereas white students have to be found responsible for serious violations like carrying a weapon or drugs in order to receive serious discipline, Parker explained.

Parker isn’t necessarily saying that all schools that emphasize the importance of “grit” or that focus on character education have particularly high suspensions and other forms of student discipline. But the attitude behind these approaches does fit into a bigger conversation about how educators view black and Hispanic kids, and what assumptions many teachers already have about their students of color.

People of color aren’t treated according to the expectations people have of them as individuals, but rather as a group. Teachers are already more likely to believe students of color need “structure” in their lives, and students of color are often seen as more mature than they are. A 2014 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for instance, found that black male students as young as 10 aren’t considered to be as childlike as their white peers. Although the white students were viewed as still having innocence because of their age, black students were seen as far more responsible for their actions.

“At the same time, I recognize that students of color are harmed when expectations are too low for those students,” Parker said. “So I would never advocate that you should not have both behavioral or educational standards, or not have them for students of color — but they should operate in the same way that you would for all students.”

Advocates for racial justice in education also say that the focus on high expectations shouldn’t ignore the other factors affecting students’ work — like the structural barriers stemming from poverty and institutional racism — or foster a culture of positivity that asks students to push down all feelings of anger or frustration about those barriers.

A 2015 case study by Noah Golden explores why it can actually be short-sighted and damaging to students to push the idea that their own willpower is the primary factor responsible for whether they achieve their goals.

For the study, Golden focuses on Elijah, a black male student who understands that he faces deep inequities in the education system and justice system, but who also embraces the idea that he can rise above these circumstances if he has the perseverance to do so. Elijah is eager to separate himself from peers in his class, many of whom are also students of color. Despite the fact that Elijah knows he’s faced barriers — for instance, his guidance counselor failed to advise him about what he might lose if he didn’t get his high school diploma and instead earned high school equivalency — he has also absorbed the message that he alone is responsible for his educational trajectory. Elijah was discharged a few months after the study, and there isn’t a record of his earning the HSE in the city program he originally studied in.

As the study notes, opportunity gaps continue to be framed as attitude problems even when they’re institutional failures. For example, the Opportunity Center that Elijah attends has students sign waivers giving up certain educational rights, such as support for dyslexia, which prevents the center from being blamed for any failure to serve students properly, even though nearly 25 percent of the students at Elijah’s program site were special education learners.

Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, has witnessed firsthand the struggles that might lead students to say they “can’t do” the work asked of them.

In a piece he wrote for Edutopia, Vilson explains that rather than embrace the idea that his students simply aren’t determined enough to do the work, he takes a different approach. He pushes for answers about why students didn’t understand an assignment, allows occasional breaks, modifies his teaching to embrace critical thinking, and encourages students to ask questions that help them better understand the material.

“We can ask them to translate these attitudes to their lives overall. We as educators must also keep in mind the vast personal experiences they bring into class, especially if they don’t get what we’re trying to teach them. Sometimes, there are a lot of things they’re not getting for reasons we can’t imagine,” Vilson writes.

The position that students simply need to adopt a “can-do” attitude and stop making excuses has been adopted by both progressive and conservative voices in education reform. The assumption that we operate in a meritocracy and can transcend racism and poverty through a positive attitude is seductive — after all, it is far more challenging to dismantle institutional racism.

But regardless of the potential issues from a racial justice perspective, experts question whether there is enough evidence to say it works.

In a 2013 Peabody Journal of Education paper, Kathryn McDermott and Kysa Nygreen argue that some approaches to character education, which are aimed to close test score gaps between students of color and white students, have not sufficiently proven they can achieve what they were intended to do and that more research is needed before educators endorse these approaches.

The paper also argues that although these approaches are praised for introducing “middle class culture” to help students achieve social mobility (problematic in its own right for the assumption that there is a values deficit), the issue is that these schools don’t also embrace the middle-class value of advocacy-based parental intervention. When students watch their parents advocate for them, they develop a sense of self-advocacy and learn to question the status quo. But when compliance is stressed above everything else, students lose exactly what middle class and affluent students — including many poor white students — enjoy: the right to embrace individuality.