All kids can learn, but will they? Low expectations create a dividing line that some kids can’t cross

All kids can learn, but will they? Low expectations create a dividing line that some kids can’t cross

George Manthey

“Can all kids really learn?” That is far too easy a question. Obviously all kids CAN learn. They’ve all learned something. The hard question is “WILL all kids learn?” meaning, “Will all kids meet the grade-level standards that have been set by the State of California?”

Despite everything I know and believe about the horrible effect of low expectations on students, I’m afraid I don’t believe all children will learn. What’s my evidence?

My own belief that I could never master calculus.

Somewhere in my educational career I developed the belief that there were some things I could learn and other things that I couldn’t. I suspect that this is also true for you. For me the dividing line between what I believed I could learn and what I couldn’t still left me lots of options. But I don’t think that’s true for far too many American children.

In fifth grade I moved to a new community. I was befriended by one of the best athletes at the school, Robert Nicks. Robert and I played basketball for hours after school, on weekends and during school vacations. He was good; I was, at best, mediocre.

During the summer after sixth grade Robert revealed to me the intricacies of junior high. He had an older brother there; I knew next to nothing about the school. Robert explained that we would be divided into 10 classrooms of seventh graders. Three were for the smart kids, three were for the “sorta” smart and three were for the “notso” smart. One was for the real losers.

Robert hoped he would he in one of the top three. He said he knew that I would be. (This was the first time I realized that someone thought of me as “smart,” but that’s a different story.)

There was an intensity in Robert as he described his longing to be in one of the smart classes that amazed me and caught my attention in a way that his labors to teach me to juke and shoot never had.

Robert was African American and his placement in one of the “notso” smart classes was no accident. Robert and I stopped being good friends when we got to junior high school. Although we were on the same Babe Ruth baseball team, he lost confidence in my ability to learn what he had once believed he could teach me. But, more importantly, he lost faith that he would ever benefit from the world of education–and he didn’t. Robert dropped out of high school and into juvenile hall during the 10th grade.

Certainly those in charge of class placements at my junior high school did not believe that all children would or could learn. But where does that dividing line get placed today? Far less frequently is it determined by skin color. But I realized that line was still there when I observed a middle school in which the sixth graders, primarily poor Hispanic children, were only reading and reporting on picture books. Someone had decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t read young adult novels, even though I’ll bet the educators wished they “could.”

I’m wondering if our willingness to create lower expectations for some (most?) children is rooted in our own belief that there are some things we ourselves can and cannot do. And I’m afraid that the vast majority of us learned this lesson at school. This belief lingers even when we learn that emotional intelligence (attitude) has a great deal more to do with success than does cognitive intelligence (whatever that is).

I am diligent in ensuring that my language and thinking about expectations prevent me from ever limiting what any student might learn, but I’m afraid I won’t believe that all children WILL learn until I believe I can master calculus. Where is your dividing line? Please make sure that that it never creates a situation where someone like my friend Robert had no choice but failure.

George Manthey is an educational services executive for ACSA.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of California School Administrators

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