Since this school year started, teachers and administrators have been having conversations about how to best support students after the disruptions of the past couple of years. We know that children have far greater academic and social and emotional needs than in years prior, and multiple data points confirm what most of us already encounter on a daily basis: Student proficiency in reading and math took a hit during the pandemic years. As teachers, how do we figure out how to respond and where to go from here?
Unsurprisingly, teacher expectations of students have a direct impact on achievement. Low or negatively biased expectations can have a crippling effect on student achievement, leading students to underperform. Even when expectations are too high, there is a positive influence on long-term student achievement and even future student careers. Here are some ways to raise expectations for all students.
Reflect on Your Perceptions of Learners
For me, reflection is always a strategy. In this instance, it’s important to be transparent with ourselves. Reflection without judgment is critical for growth. These questions can help you reflect on how the year is going:
- Can you think of a student you believe cannot achieve because the class is too difficult?
- Can you think of a student who is bound to fail if you keep your expectations high?
- Are you focused on what some students cannot do, rather than seeking to build on what these students have demonstrated?
I think most of us can (or could at one time) answer yes to at least one of these questions. After the initial reflections, it’s useful to think about why we may sometimes arrive at these conclusions. These questions can help teachers understand the underlying causes:
- Why do I feel this way?
- Are my perceptions based on data?
- Am I confident that I have used the data to effectively address student gaps to the best of my professional ability?
- Am I basing my perception of student ability on any other factors?
I encourage you to reflect on your expectations of all students with an understanding of how these expectations impact student outcomes. When we raise the bar in both instruction and assessment, students rise to the occasion.
An Asset-Based Approach to Instruction
The students who come into our classrooms with the largest gaps are the children who grow the most when we meet their academic needs. In fact, when we look at literacy and math proficiency levels, growth slows as students move from K to 12. Accordingly, embracing the likelihood of student growth when children are not at grade level is pivotal to setting high expectations for all learners.
Furthermore, mindset dictates language. When we become excited to help our students grow, we speak the language of high standards: confidence in student ability, encouragement to persevere, and an embrace of the learning that sometimes only comes through failure.
Creating instructional groups: Teachers can use assessment or preassessment data to place students into tiers to provide learners who need more attention with small group instruction. As grade-level proficiency remains the firm, lowest-level goal for every student, we can then begin mapping the gap between what each tier of learners already understands on a trajectory toward meeting our expectations.
Grouping students into tiers allows teachers to differentiate by content and process in order to both meet the needs of learners at or above grade level (Tier 1) and provide small group instruction to students who are not at pace with their peers (Tiers 2 and 3). There is no easy fix for students who arrive in our classrooms with a lack of skills required to meet grade-level standards, and addressing the most severe gaps in learning requires time and attention to focus on prerequisite skills.
Intentionally building relationships with these learners facilitates the warmth needed to accompany the demand that must be placed on every student. However, this is only possible if we ourselves can expect our learners to grow accordingly. Conversely, if we view the odds as insurmountable, chances are the same students will again move on to the next grade level with the same gaps.
An Asset-Based Approach to Assessment and Data
We cannot challenge biased perceptions unless we can recognize them. With this in mind, undertaking this process provides us with a mental marker to stop and think when we feel the need to lower standards for some students. All expectations that teachers hold for students should be based on data, beginning with grade-level standards and proficiencies. Regardless of the impressions I develop of the children I interact with each day, my goal for every student in my class is to read, write, speak, and listen at grade level.
Formative assessment: Determining what students already know is a key component of teaching new material. For instance, if I am teaching students to write an argument to support a claim using evidence, I will administer my own low-stakes class assignment to use as a preassessment.
I recommend this method for two reasons. As a teacher, I always had some students who did not test well but were often able to demonstrate mastery of skills during the class activity following instruction. Additionally, the low-stakes, teacher-created assessment allows us to engage our class in a context that learners are already familiar with in order to isolate skill from content. When content is not contextualized for students, it becomes more challenging to accurately assess skill.
For example, in my lesson on argument, my preassessment would require students to support a claim about a trending topic on social media using evidence from sources I curated. This activity is low-stakes and helps me understand what students already know about crafting an argument using evidence. Not only am I confident in my skill set as a teacher, but, more important, I am certain about the ability of all of my students to develop a deeper understanding of how to effectively support a claim using evidence because of the instruction I am facilitating. We must hold all students to high expectations, but also hold ourselves as educators to a high standard.
As teachers, we set a goal for the class, facilitate instruction and learning through various strategies and activities, and then assess the understanding of our learners. When students cannot demonstrate understanding, an asset-based grasp of student ability recognizes the significance of figuring out a new approach to reteach, reframe, rework, and retry where expectations have not been met. Ultimately, if I know my students will always rise to the occasion, I must accept responsibility for ensuring that my instruction is meaningful, relevant, and, most important, effective.