The “High Expectations” Mantra

Eva Moskowitz writes:

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.

Yep.  Grade inflation happens everywhere, from Eva’s setting (high-poverty schools in NYC) to the Ivy Leagues.  See here.
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Let’s dig in.  From a teacher’s point of view: what happens when an average 10-year-old (5th grader) writes an average essay?
1. Most common:
Ms. Smith scores it a “B” (average for her class).   Makes a few comments in the margins, along with a smiley face.  This takes 5 minutes per essay, times 25 papers.  So about 2 hours per week.
And the student?  He glances at the comments for a few seconds.  Then puts it in a folder.  To never be seen again.
2. “High Bar”
Ms. Jones scores that same essay a “C-.”  Reasoning: even though it’s average for her class, the essay is not close to where a college-track 5th grader should be.
Perhaps she converts “C-” to a phrase like “Needs Major Revision” so the student isn’t irritated/discouraged by the “C-” label.  Makes several comments in the margins.
To do this takes Ms. Jones twice as long as Ms. Smith (to mark the paper).
Then Ms. Jones assigns a major rewrite by the student.  So now Ms. Jones must spend even more time, marking the re-submission.
In total perhaps now she’s investing 6 hours a week, so 3x more than Ms. Smith.
Plus, Ms. Jones faces: displeasure from some  parents, some principals, and some students.
2a. Sometimes the “High Bar” works: kids improve!
Typically this happens with students who show great motivation to earn high grades.  Whether that’s intrinsic or extrinsic (i.e., Ma and Pa).  These students put in the needed effort.
2b. Often the “High Bar,” by itself, doesn’t succeed.
Students resubmit with very minor edits, little effort.   No real improvement in  writing skill.
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3. Who Do You Want To Be?
If Ms. Jones mostly has students who put less effort into responding to feedback, she faces a tough choice over the years…
3a. Ms. Jones can choose to become like Ms. Smith.
Lower the bar.  If her own 6 hours a week is not actually helping many kids, why bother?   Take it back to 2 hours a week.
3b. Ms. Jones can dig even deeper.  That’s the other choice.
She can spend another 4 to 6 hours a week.
How?  Work to motivate the students, one by one.  Sometimes that means actually working side-by-side with students, before and after school.  Other times, it means “relationship-building” with kids and their parents — so that a student is willing to try hard just to please this teacher, who genuinely has shown respect and caring.
This type of teaching now may mean Ms. Jones is at 10 to 12 hours per week.
4. Helping the Jones’s
Two things help Ms. Jones.
– Team Effort.  It’s easier for you to try harder if you think I’m trying harder.  It’s easier for Ms. Jones to teach this way if Ms. Smith also does.  Shared sacrifice.  At Success: they only hire Ms. Jones and people like her.  They don’t try to change Ms. Smith.
– Clear Bar.  It’s easier to motivate kids if the “High Bar” is external.  “Someone else set the standard.  I’m just trying to help you reach it.”  Eva’s team does  that.
5. Delegation
Still, I think it’s useful to pose the puzzle this way: how can principals make it easier for Ms. Jones to persist with a high bar?  Can we dial back her hours, keep her High Bar?
I’ve experimented over the years with:
*Adjunct staff who just mark the papers
*Software which does the same
*Tutors who do the “sitting side-by-side” instruction with the kids
Tricky part: these tools help most when combined Team Effort and Clear Bar (which has to  come from above).
They still help with a High Bar teacher like Ms. Jones, but they’re diluted.
And in Ms. Smith’s class, probably these extra resources are wasted: kids end up no better as writers.