Improve Education with Great Expectations for All Students

Opinion

If I could change one thing about our K-12 education system, it would be to end the curse of low expectations in Washington’s public schools.

Numerous studies have shown that teacher and principal expectations have a profound effect on school culture and student performance. A student treated as if she or he can accomplish anything does far better than one who is treated as having low potential. Students treated as gifted often perform at higher levels. Expectations can and do shape reality.

There are high-performing public schools in low-income communities, which have proven time and again that every student has potential. It is the adults who create a culture in which students either wither or thrive.

Here are two examples of Washington schools defying the conventional expectations:

  • Two thirds of Neah Bay High School students come from low-income backgrounds. For the past three years, they have maintained an amazing 100 percent graduation rate—the state average is 70 percent—and consistently beat the state average on language and math proficiency.
  • Seattle’s Asa Mercer Middle School has a largely low-income, immigrant student body—over 129 languages are spoken. Nonetheless, the school has won the statewide School of Distinction award more times than any other school in Washington, and its students consistently outperform the average Seattle student by nearly every measure. In 2005, 14 percent of its eighth-graders passed the state science test. Through the dedication of teachers and administration, paired with raised expectations toward students, now over 80 percent pass. More than 70 percent of students come from a low-income background.

These examples show it can be done. It takes sustained effort and unflinching dedication, strong and talented school leadership, and believing deeply in the abilities of your students.

How are we actually doing for most of our students? Not very well.

Only 75 percent of our high school students graduate on time, and then fewer than half go onto college. Most of those who pursue a college education are not ready. Of the 20,336 high school students from Washington’s class of 2008-09 who went on to community or technical college within a year of graduation, an astonishing 57 percent (PDF) had to enroll in at least one remedial course. This is indicative of a system that is simply not preparing our students for a 21st century economy.

Not every student will want to pursue a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math. But we should treat every student as if she or he could if desired, and offer the tools to pursue those opportunities. That means increasing the level of pre-graduation proficiency that students must demonstrate in science and math. This means making senior year more meaningful, laying the groundwork for college or career. But most importantly, our students should be treated as if a life of service and success is in their future, regardless of background.

[Editor’s note: To tap the wisdom of our distinguished group of Xconomists, we asked a few of them to answer this question heading into 2015: “If you could change one thing in education, what would it be?” You can see other questions and answers here.]

Susannah Malarkey is the Executive Director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide organization of leaders from technology businesses and research institutions dedicated to Washington's long-term economic success Follow @

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