A very unsettling shadow is settling over the whole American educational endeavor. It's largely a consequence of the idea that every child should graduate from high school, be admitted to college and then graduate from college. In order to make that happen, all along the way expectations would have to be lowered. That, unfortunately, involves giving in to the bigotry of low expectations.
A glaring example of such low expectations was revealed in Baltimore recently. A teacher at the Career Academy gave 11 of his students answers to questions on the state High School Assessment test in biology. Apparently the teacher thought the students were likely to fail the test and would not be able to graduate with the rest of their class. He (or she) did not want them to experience such disappointment.
Nor did those educators who were responsible for the formulation of the High School Assessment program. At bottom, they too had low expectations and wanted to avoid the likelihood that a large number of students would fail rigorous exams. So they set up a way that students who failed an assessment exam could avoid failing. They could do a "bridge plan project." That is, students who did not know enough to pass the test after two tries could do a project and thereby demonstrate they really did have knowledge of the subject they had failed.
Last month, The Sun ran an obituary of Dorothy V. Thomas, who had taught elementary school in Baltimore for two decades. Mrs. Thomas was totally free of the bigotry of low expectations. Her expectations were high, and her students turned out all the better because of her high expectations.
The Virginia-born Mrs. Thomas, one of 11 children, was an old-school tough teacher who did not make life easy for her students. In her obituary, former students speak of the great debt they owed her.
Sidney Clifton, who is now a Hollywood producer, said Mrs. Thomas' teaching was not about getting her students through but about empowerment and self-reliance. "She was our rock," Ms. Clifton said. "We all wanted to keep up with her and have her be proud of us. What she gave us really mattered in our lives."
Another of her students put it this way: "She wasn't like a nice, sweet teacher. She had a way of stepping on your shoes but never to dull your shine."
Mrs. Thomas did not tolerate laziness. When she suspected a lack of interest in what was being taught, she didn't hesitate to tell the student, "If you put your brains in a bird, he'd fly backward." Gregory Deanda remembers another of her tactics. He was once up at the blackboard and having trouble with a problem. Mrs. Thomas told him, "If you quit now, you're always going to quit." She made him stand up there for 20 minutes, when he finally solved the problem. Mr. Deanda says he learned the importance of never quitting.
There is short-term help and there is help that will last a lifetime. Easy short-term help, often offered by new-school teachers, gets a student through and avoids embarrassment. Short-term help leads students to believe that in school and in life afterward someone will be coming to the rescue. Why plan? Why take on a chore that will take time and patience? Why turn off the TV and memorize a list? Someone in authority will understand.
Memorizing can be tedious and stressful, not much fun. But that's how we learn fractions and percentages. That's how we learn the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That's how you learn the main parts of a human primary cell — and pass a biology test.
Teaching knowledge and character are the primary responsibilities of schools. Too many new-school teachers want to take short cuts and avoid conflict — with students, parents, administrators. Offering short cuts diminishes character, the teacher's as well as the student's.
Teachers ought to follow the example of Mrs. Thomas: Draw a line and hold to it. When the student's performance is not up to the mark, don't accept pleas such as "I worked so hard" or "I need to graduate."
What would Mrs. Thomas think of a fellow teacher who supplied students with answers to test questions?
Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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