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LEVEL OF EXPECTATIONS
The Concord Review
25 June 2012
It has become an educational cliché to say that “students will rise to the level of expectations.” But how do we explain the students whose work rises well above our level of expectations? Mostly, we just ignore them. In the local media, coverage of high school sports “blanks” any and all accounts of exemplary academic work by high school students.
In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching (as I thought) United States History to Sophomores at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I assigned, following the advice of my colleagues, history papers of just 5-7 pages, but I did tell the students that the title page did not count as one of the pages.
One quiet student, who I did not know at all, turned in a 28-page paper on the current balance of nuclear/thermonuclear weapons between the United States and the USSR. He later graduated summa cum laude from Tufts in economics. Why did he do that paper? He didn’t need to, and he didn’t do it for me. He was “rising” to the level of his own expectations. As Laurence Steinberg wrote in Beyond the Classroom: “Within a system that fails (flunks) very few students, then, only those students who have high standards of their own—who have more stringent criteria for success and failure—will strive to do better than merely to pass and graduate.”
In the last 25 years I have published more than 1,000 history research papers by crazy motivated secondary students like that from 46 states and 38 other countries. (I am happy to provide pdfs of some of these exemplary history research papers on request to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Since the 1960s, the International Baccalaureate has been expecting students to complete a 4,000-word Extended Essay to qualify for the Diploma. In 2011, I published an 11,000-word (Emerson Prize) paper on the stagnation in science and technology in China for five centuries after 1500, and the student had to cut it down to 4,000 words to meet the expectations for the Extended Essay and the IB Diploma. ACT and the College Board have not yet included an expectation for that sort of academic expository writing.
Often we work to limit what students do academically. Several years ago, when The Concord Review was receiving submissions of high school history research papers of 6,000, 8,000, and 10,000 words, I asked the Executive Director of National History Day, which has as one option for competitors a 2,500-word history paper, if they had considered accepting essays that were longer. She said that no, they didn’t want any paper that took more than 10 minutes to read.
Recently when I published a 108-page (Emerson Prize) paper on the War of Regulation in North Carolina in the 18th century by a student from an independent school west of the Mississippi, I found out that she had to reduce it to 9 pages, without endnotes, to enable her to win first place nationally in the National History Day competition.
One student whose (Emerson Prize) work I published went to her teacher and said: “My paper is going to be 57 pages, is that all right?” And the teacher (may his tribe increase) said, “Yes.”
Five or six years ago I received a paper (Emerson Prize) on the history of economic reform in China in recent years from a student at a public high school in Ohio. Like high schools generally, hers expected her to complete their requirements in four years. Instead she did most of it in two and spent part of the next two years as a student at The Ohio State University before applying to Harvard as a freshman. She recently graduated from there with high honors in mathematics, with an economics minor.
I should say that, even though Asian students have the highest academic achievement of any group in the United States, not all of the students I have published have been Asian, nor did the high level of expectations for their own academic work all come from the Confucian influence of their parents.
When it comes to academics, we seem to give the vast majority of our attention to, and spend the bulk of our efforts on, students whose efforts fall far below our expectations, those who, if not among the 25-30% who fail to finish high school, may enter community college reading at the fifth-grade level, and more than half of whom will drop out from there. Naturally we want to help those who are doing poorly in school. Still, we do want our most brilliant students to start companies, become scientists, be our judges, diplomats, and elected officials, teach history, write good books, and otherwise work to sustain and advance our civilization. But our basic attitude is—let them manage on their own.
How different it is for our promising young athletes, for whom we have the highest expectations, on whom we keep the most elaborate statistics, and to whom we dedicate the most voluminous local media coverage, as well as nationally-televised high school football and basketball games.
If we matched for them the expectations we have for our students’ academic work, we might be asking them to run just one lap, do two pushups, and spend most of their time helping out in gym classes, or playing video games, instead of practicing their sport. But our young people, being the way they are, would no doubt “cheat,” as some do in academics, by deriving higher standards from their own ambition and from seeing the achievements of their peers, and the athletes for whom we might try to set such low expectations, like the young scholars for whom we do, would continue to rise above them, and to astonish us with their accomplishments. Dumb Lucky us.