Why Lower the Bar?

So why would anyone, let alone an untenured public school teacher, suggest publicly that we lower the bar for our nation’s students? How can lowered expectations lead to anything but educational disaster? Well, for my first post I’m going to try to go big picture, and in that spirit I’m going to take a step back and consider a more fundamental question first.

What exactly is the bar?

We all understand that “the bar“ is a metaphor for our overarching educational goal, but what does that goal look like? Does it refer to the goal that our students will master the grade level curricular standards that have been adopted by their state? Does the bar refer directly to the standardized testing that has become the focal point of every academic year? Or rather, could the bar refer to the broader goal that our students maximize their academic potential to become productive, informed, healthy and engaged members of a democratic society?

If I thought all this talk about raising the bar had much to do with the third option, then I wouldn’t feel compelled to start this blog. I would be content to teach my class and cheer on the educational reform movement from the sidelines. When I refer to “the bar“ in this blog, I’ll be talking about the state standards and the fill-in-the-bubble tests that are meant to measure students’ mastery of those standards. Most of the major efforts of the reform movement over the past 20+ years seem to have been focused on standards and testing, and I see those manifestations of “the bar”, at least in their current state, as serious obstacles to the goal of an appropriate, meaningful and relevant education for our schoolchildren.

So why lower the bar? Well, most importantly, it’s too high. The high jump analogy should make that one kind of obvious. Imagine a child who is trying to clear a five-foot high jump bar. She is not even close to being able to reach it, but rather than start with a lower height that is just out of her reach and then giving her the appropriate training and coaching to succeed at that height first, the coach comes up with the brilliant solution of raising the bar still higher. Whether in athletics or in the classroom, it’s not a great motivational technique and it doesn’t lead to very good results. Any teacher who has watched a child on the wrong side of the achievement gap take a standardized test can tell you that the self-esteem movement in educational reform is officially over. It’s not easy to set up a group of your students to fail, and that’s precisely what we’re asked to do every spring.

The bar is also too narrow, though the high jump metaphor breaks down a bit here. Our standardized tests only address the standards for the current grade level of each student. If a student is significantly below grade level (and we know that many are), there is no way to demonstrate how much they have improved until they’ve actually caught up completely. This disincentivizes teachers from actually filling in the gaps in struggling students’ educations and giving them the educational foundation they need to move forward. Instead, teachers feel the pressure to “teach to the test” even though the material on the test is more or less incomprehensible to students who don’t have appropriate prior knowledge and skills. It’s also important to note that in the current system there is very little incentive for teachers to challenge students who are already performing at or above grade level.

So what am I really suggesting? First of all let’s toss out the fundamentally flawed notion that we should have one blanket expectation for all of our students. Our assembly line approach to education is hopelessly out of date, and we all know full well that our students come to class each year with a huge range of prior knowledge, skills and intellectual abilities. Focusing our energy on one set of expectations for all students assures that we will be failing to reach many of them. If we set the bar too high, we can’t show the progress of our struggling students. If we set it too low, we don’t challenge the rest or give them a chance to shine. Our standardized tests should cover a much broader range of skills and knowledge, and they should make more of an effort to test reasoning and conceptual understanding. In that sense, we need to spread the bar out (and I guess make it out of better material). Also, we should be setting individual goals for every student based on where they are academically. I guess that means that every child should get his or her own bar. Now a blog entitled “Ok, Spread the Bar and Give a Personalized Bar to Every Child” would not have quite the same ring, but if “Ok, Lower the Bar” ever makes it into a sound bite on the news or in a political speech, at least you’ll know what I really mean.

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About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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10 Responses to Why Lower the Bar?

  1. Brian Cronin says:

    Thanks Mitch this is really insightful and says a lot that isn’t being said in the current debate about education. One suggestion, WordPress may have social share plugins that you can add so people can tweet or share this to Twitter or Facebook.

    Thanks for giving me some points to make in my next education debate!

  2. maestromitch says:

    Hey Brian, thanks for the kind words and the suggestion. It seems that adding a sharing feature is beyond my technological know-how right now, but I’ll work on it.

  3. Heather Nelms says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I love this and think I will print and post it in our staff lounge!

  4. rebecca says:

    dear mr. slater,

    you are brilliant and wise. write on….

    🙂

  5. marie says:

    I think this is GREAT!!! However… why are private schools not mentioned?
    There is ALOT of pressure for these kids… they are loaded with tutors and medication…these kids parents believe if they do not do this they will be”lowering the bar”

    • maestromitch says:

      Hi Marie,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The scope of my blog is more or less limited to my ideas about the standards and testing movement in public education. I actually worked in private schools for 11 years, and I definitely agree that there are issues about overly high pressures and expectations in the private school world too.

      • marie says:

        If you don’t mind my asking… although you taught in private schools for 11 years…how many years ago did you teach there? The reason I ask is to help the private school children as well… private schools have put them self into some sort of competition with the specialized public schools… Although the test ERB”S that are given at private schools are a better test… there are a large number of private schools judging a child on his/her results. I am speaking about NY Private schools. The story goes as follows… a child that scores average or above average on an ERB is considered fine in a school receiving a B and c’s a c hild scoring below average on an ERB is considered unsuccessful…

      • maestromitch says:

        Hi Marie, I taught in private schools up until this school year, from 1999 to 2010. I really think that attitudes about testing can very quite a bit by school. I worked at two community Jewish day schools in California, and while there was certainly a lot of emphasis on academic achievement, standardized test scores were generally downplayed. That’s not to say that some parents weren’t overly focused on their child’s test results, or that the school didn’t take them seriously, but in general I felt that both schools did a good job of viewing and utilizing the scores in a balanced way. I’m not surprised that the culture is different in many private schools, but I’m just commenting on my own experiences.

  6. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    Beautifully stated.

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