[Excerpt] Educational reformers and most of the American public believe that teachers ask too little of their pupils. African-American and Hispanic parents, in particular, criticize the low expectations and goals that teachers and school administrators often set for their children. These low expectations, they believe, result in watered down curricula and a tolerance of mediocre teaching and inappropriate student behavior. The result is that the prophecy of low achievement becomes self-fulfilling.
The problem of low expectations is not limited to minority students or lower income communities. It’s endemic. High school subjects are taught at vastly different levels. Research has shown that learning gains are substantially larger when students take more demanding courses. Controlling for teacher qualifications and student ability and socio-economic status does not significantly reduce the positive effects of course rigor on test score gains (Kulik 1984, Monk 1994, Bishop 1996). Why then do students not flock to more demanding courses? First, these courses are considerably more work and grades tend to be lower. Secondly, the rigor of these courses is not well signaled to parents, neighbors, employers and colleges, so the rewards for the extra work are small for most students. Admissions staff of selective colleges learn how to read the transcripts of high schools they recruit from and they evaluate grades in the light of course demands. However, most colleges have, historically, not factored the rigor of high school courses into their admissions decisions. Employers hardly ever consider the rigor of high school courses when they make hiring decisions. Consequently, the bulk of students who do not aspire to attend a selective college quite rationally avoid rigorous courses and demanding teachers.