Op-Ed: What we expect of our students: Why we must expect more

When it comes to human performance, what is expected shapes what we get. Experienced individuals, be they in business, the military, the clergy, or elsewhere, know that a low bar virtually assures low performance. Employees, recruits, parishioners, etc come to understand what is expected of them and, where reasonable, will strive to conform to expectations. This is as true for students in our schools as it is for workers in our factories, sales personnel in our stores, and soldiers in our army.

The Present Problem
Tennessee expects too little of its students. Consequently, our students learn too little. This is not opinion. This is fact.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released rankings based on the rigor of state specified learning expectations. In elementary reading and mathematics, Tennessee is either dead last or literally next to the bottom. Our geographic neighbor, Mississippi, is also in the student expectations cellar. However, this is not a “good ole boy” southern phenomenon. Southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Florida all hold students to a higher set of learning expectations than does Tennessee. South Carolina, yes South Carolina, is the second ranking most rigorous state in the union.

So What?
State learning standards set the bar for what teachers teach, what textbooks include, what state tests measure, and what students learn. If standards are intellectually flabby, the chance is good that learning lags. One can be sure that, by national and international test comparisons, learning lags among Tennessee students. However, we need not go out of state or overseas to verify the problem. Virtually half of Tennessee college freshman show up needing to take or repeat high school subjects. This wastes time and taxpayers’ money.

But more important than money and more important than test score comparisons, by expecting too little of our students we are deluding ourselves and placing students’, and our state’s, future in jeopardy. Tennessee students no longer compete against counterparts from down the street or across the state. Competitors are from across our nation and around the world. Tennessee needs world class standards.

What to Do?
The federal government does not set learning standards for students.

Standards setting is undertaken initially by the Tennessee State Board of Education. Under the leadership of its executive, Dr. Gary Nixon, the Tennessee State Board of Education is proposing higher learning standards. Its efforts are to be applauded and one hopes that Governor Bredesen will continue to supply his enormous leadership skills and his good offices to ensuring that this effort continues until Tennessee can hold its head as high on this standards dimension as we can elsewhere.

Elevated standards, while the right starting place, will not alone strengthen Tennessee’s education. Present day state tests are opaque and understandably mystify educators and citizens alike. Tests need to encompass more rigorous intellectual expectations. Teacher preparation will have to reflect greater rigor. Of course, eventually, we must also address our state higher education system which, when its turn comes, similarly needs to be subjected to higher expectations.

James Guthrie is professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development. He is chair of the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy and executive director of the National Center on Performance Incentives.

Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS

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