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High expectations are a matter of equity

By Molly DePasquale

I remember vividly my middle school teacher gave us a word search as a final exam. It affected me profoundly. Was this all he thought we could do?

As an adult, I’ve learned that kids generally meet teachers’ expectations. If you set the bar too low, they believe that’s all they’re capable of. That’s why when I became a middle school teacher, I felt a duty to communicate high expectations to my students, so they could believe in themselves and rise to meet rigorous standards.

Inequities persist

When I began teaching in a school outside Atlanta, I was struck by how students of color were held to lower expectations. For example, it was okay if they didn’t pass the state summatives. They weren’t expected to. That was the way things had always been.

It became clear to me how deeply these expectations affected my students when my seventh graders did an exercise in which they taught new content to sixth graders. 

They were excited at first and worked hard for days to prepare and become experts in the material. They even developed their own targeted teaching tools. I knew they were going to nail it. 

But when they walked into the sixth grade classroom and saw mostly white faces, their jaws dropped. They were terrified! One student looked up at me and said, “You didn’t tell us we were going to teach the gifted class.” 

They saw the class of mostly white students and assumed it must have been the gifted class. And could you blame them? There was an absurd underrepresentation of children of color in gifted programs, as well an overrepresentation of children of color in interventions and behavior referrals.

The devastating fact was that they internalized that there were lower expectations for them based on the color of their skin. Their self-worth was diminished by the experience they had going to this school and living in this community.

What I can do, where I am, with what I have

What is equity in education? 

Something I’ve learned working at ANet is that low quality assessments that lack purpose can perpetuate inequity. Oftentimes, they’re used to track kids early on and to push some into gifted programs, where there are higher expectations. Others are pushed into remedial programs, where there are lower expectations and less likelihood of them ever rising to the college and career ready standards. 

This is where the personal and professional intersect for me. I’ve been an educator for over 16 years and I have two kids. My eldest son is in kindergarten, in the same community where I taught, and where there’s a glaring racial achievement gap. 

These are some of the steps I take to influence my son’s school, my local community, and the larger education community.

Personal Professional
Meetings with the school board where I’m very candid and direct about the testing policies that contribute to systemic racism

Supporting my friends who teach at my son’s school in selecting high-quality materials and assessments

Being elected to the school leadership to try to influence decisions around testing practices

Opting out of assessments that perpetuate systemic racism by pushing kids into low, medium, and high classes and have very little instructional value
Through system advising I support systems across the country with responsible assessment practices

Helping leaders reflect on assessment volume through the lens of quality and purpose

Emphasizing instructional assessments because every assessment should be worth the instructional time it takes and be used to move all students forward

Speaking out against over-testing, which seems to be more prevalent in communities of color

I take ANet’s charge to Advance Equity very seriously because it’s bigger than just how these issues negatively affect my child. It’s about how they affect the broader community and all of the children that live here. 

Molly is the executive director of system advising at ANet. She has 16 years of experience as a middle school math teacher and instructional leader, including as a master educator for DC Public Schools and as an ANet coach.

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