“Holding students to high expectations” is harder than it sounds

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Eva Moskowitz

When I graduated from Stuyvesant High School—considered one of the best public schools in the country—I thought I was a great writer: I had received A’s on virtually every one of my high school essays. When I got my first written assignment back as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, however, I was shocked to see a C- on the page, and a note scrawled in red: “You should get help at the writing center.” Essentially, I had been sent to remediation.

“We hold students to high expectations” is practically a mantra in this country—but in truth, we are failing at it. Each year, we send hundreds of thousands of students off to college who, upon arrival, discover they are underprepared. As my own experience demonstrates, the problem is not limited to graduates of low-performing public schools.

When I received that first C- at Penn, I was angry that I had a false confidence. Today, as the leader of almost fifty K–12 schools, I better understand how difficult it is for teachers to consistently maintain high standards for their students. The reality is that holding students to high expectations takes a tremendous amount of work. When teachers give high grades for mediocre work, no one asks any questions and they can carry on as before. When they give more realistic grades, they have an obligation to follow up with detailed feedback, more support, and better instruction. It’s not surprising then that most—often unconsciously—opt for the first course of action.

To counteract this retreat from excellence, school leaders must provide ongoing training and support around setting a high bar and holding students to it. At Success Academy, this is our highest priority. It starts each year at T-School, a four-week intensive summer training for teachers and instructional leaders, which launches with what we call “State of Our Schools.” This session is an opportunity to galvanize our educators toward excellence—not excellence as defined by state tests, but as demonstrated in great writing, in mathematical and scientific thinking, and by the education that our most competitive students in the nation receive. We don’t talk vaguely about high expectations; we point out that the bar for excellence is actually quite concrete—defined by nationally normed tests like the SAT, the SAT IIs, and Advanced Placement exams.

Educators can’t hold students to a high bar if they don’t have a clear vision of what excellence looks like. Often teachers—and principals—have a definition of excellence that defaults to the best work produced in their classroom or school; if the “best” work is not great, expectations for all their students inevitably shift downwards. In State of the Schools, we re-familiarize SA educators with how high the bar is and call out where we have failed to hold our students to it. We examine samples of students’ writing, their responses to math problems, and explanations of scientific concepts, and we share examples of challenging academic tasks our scholars will have to successfully tackle in high school if they want to gain admittance and financial support to the nation’s top colleges. We remind our educators that when we tell students that poor work is great, we are doing them a grave disservice.

Of course, one two-hour session is not sufficient for teachers and school leaders to put this message into practice—it merely establishes a unified and ambitious vision to inform, motivate, and inspire. Over the following four weeks of T-School, and throughout the school year, principals observe teacher practice, and school managers observe principal practice. Leaders scrutinize student work to assess gaps in critical thinking, and examine teachers’ feedback to ensure it is actionable and focused on the quality of students’ ideas. They study and share exemplary samples of both to calibrate standards. And they provide coaching, so that principals and teachers get better at helping students reach excellence.

As the year progresses, we hold two to three additional State of Schools to assess where we are in relation to our objectives. We evaluate student performance against our excellence bar, and we revise curriculum, assessments, and training—sometimes all of the above—to ensure we are asking our scholars to put forth the level of thinking, writing, and problem solving necessary for true college readiness.

The battle for excellence is tough and ongoing, and merely commanding teachers to raise their standards is grossly insufficient. Ultimately, holding students to a high bar requires a zealous and persistent commitment by everyone—from superintendents, principals, and parents, to assistant teachers and office staff. Everyone must share a clear understanding of what excellence is, and give students the realistic feedback and dedicated support they need to meet the ambitious expectations of which we know they are capable.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Linkedin.

Eva Moskowitz is CEO and Founder of Success Academy Charter Schools.