We are a college-going nation...

 

in a new and exciting way. College attendance in the United States has grown so rapidly over the past four decades that now 75 percent of high school graduates get some postsecondary education within two years of receiving their diplomas. Student aspirations are even loftier, with nearly 90 percent saying they hope to attend college.1 Older adults, too, have recognized the benefits of college study and account for more than one-third of matriculants.2 Possession of a college degree today means substantially what a high school diploma meant a hundred years ago; it is the passport to most careers, and without it, people can find themselves trapped in unrewarding jobs.

 

As college attendance rates have risen, so too has the diversity of the student body. Teaching techniques, course content, and college organization that may have been adequate when mostly white and privileged young men went to college, now need to be diversified as well. With college serving a much larger part of society, strong pressure exists to make education truly effective. Available research on teaching has the potential to improve every student's achievement, but has yet to influence significantly either schools or colleges.

 

Attendance patterns have changed as well. Forty years ago, the typical student entered a college at age eighteen and emerged from it four years later as a graduate. Although significant groups of students still follow this pattern, it is no longer the norm. Many undergraduates are older, resuming interrupted studies or attending part-time as they work and raise families. In their progression toward a degree, large numbers of students enroll at two, three, or more institutions, also taking courses online. For them college can be a revolving door. In the past, students relied on one institution to provide degree programs and, they hoped, to deliver a logically sequenced education. While coherence may have been illusory even then, newer attendance patterns place greater responsibility on students themselves to create meaningful learning from a supermarket of choices. If not well advised about how to plan an education, students can waste time and money—and jeopardize their futures—even as society is deprived of a well-educated citizenry.

 

At the same time that colleges admit many more students, the professors who teach them report greater numbers underprepared for college work. The evidence supports these impressions.3 Less than one-half of high school graduates complete even a minimally defined college preparatory curriculum in high school, leaving colleges to remedy the educational gaps. Easy courses, poor counseling, and low expectations of students and teachers alike contribute to the mismatch between high school graduation and college readiness. For a student who falls behind at any time from primary through secondary school, few programs or strategies are on hand to help. Through a vicious downward cycle of lowered expectations, the student is all-to-quickly assigned to a general studies track, which leads neither to college preparation, nor to a career.

 

Surveys show that only four in ten high school teachers believe all students to be capable of success in a rigorous course of study.16 With those responsible for public education holding such low expectations, it is small wonder that many students are underprepared for college. And yet, prepared or not, most high school graduates continue their studies.

 

The situation at the turn of the twenty-first century, with college education fast becoming the national standard, recalls the early twentieth century when the U.S. reached for universal high school attendance.

 

In that moment of transition, the country discussed whether all students should get the same high school curriculum or be slotted into tracks seen as appropriate to their prospects. While many urged equal educational opportunities for all, tracking became the norm in public schools. More recently, the country began dismantling this inequitable pattern. While tracking may permit customized education for some students, it shuts off options for others, often unfavorably affecting racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged.17 Even today, too many students still receive what Robert P. Moses calls "a ghetto education."18

 

It is society's responsibility to ensure all students powerful learning that prepares not only for a job, but for career advancement and a fulfilling life as well. Without this commitment, individual students and the broader community are shortchanged. If colleges hold low expectations for many of their students and shunt them into narrow or shallow tracks, they could be recreating at the collegiate level the severe, discriminatory problems of the twentieth-century high school experiment. As college education now becomes commonplace, all students must have the opportunity to achieve the most empowering forms of learning.

 

Expectations for greater success are not utopian dreams. Research confirms that when much is expected, much is achieved.19 Similarly, low expectations lead to disappointing results. Raising expectations, however, means confronting the common perception that native ability counts more than hard work. While in some cultures parents teach their children to apply themselves or risk failure, Americans tend to attribute failure to a lack of talent.25 When parents or teachers say, "Becky just can't do math," Becky gets the message she is not smart and feels helpless to do better. While nearly everyone admits that some people learn faster than others, too few know about the successes of exemplary schools and colleges across the country. These models of excellence—in urban, rural, and suburban settings—demonstrate how persistence, good teaching, and an environment of greater expectations can combine to elicit better performance from all students.

 

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Texas School District’s
Greater Expectations