Lowering the boom on ‘raising the bar’

It is no longer debatable that, generally speaking, there is a huge gap in achievement in school and in life between students who come from poverty and those who do not. The folks in charge of writing education policies, primarily politicians and their appointees, have professed that the way to close this gap is to “raise the bar” (aka, increase expectations) for students who are not successful. Their thinking is that human beings always rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them, so children of poverty have no choice but to improve when they are told to try a little harder.

They are wrong, of course, which is why the achievement gap still exists after decades of following this philosophy. This approach only works when people for whom you are raising the bar have the same value or belief system you do and the wherewithal to change their behaviors. If they do not, you can raise the bar as high as you want, and it won’t make a difference. This holds true for any one of us, because personal aspirations matter.

This seems so obvious, especially in light of the complete failure of the “raise the bar” posse, yet it continues to be the primary strategy employed by state-level policy writers.

Those who feel they have a right to impose their belief system onto others are infected by a healthy dose of arrogance, and state leadership positions are teeming with those folks. But, two of the more (in)famous members of this “raise the bar” club were former state board of education members Tom Gunlock and C. Todd Jones. (Thank God for the “former” part.)

I have been unfortunate enough to have interacted with both of these men, and I’m quite certain I have never met anyone more self-assured of their superior intellect than those two. They maintained their arrogance in spite of their consistent failure in improving things for kids.

As unapologetic leaders of the “raise the bar” movement, every time the data again proved there is a connection between poverty and low achievement they would simply scream, “Raise the bar!” a little louder. It was as if they believed that repeating the same false solution at a higher volume would somehow turn the worm. Well, they were wrong.

One has to wonder if these two men ever read any of the research on how poverty impacts children’s lives. Had they climbed down off their high horses long enough to read, for example, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” by Eric Jensen, particularly the chapter titled “How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance,” they might have learned how a multitude of factors negatively impacts poor kids. There are a thousand reviews of research just like Mr. Jensen’s that they could have read, and had they done so, perhaps they would have seen the error of their ways. But, probably not.

Nowhere does the research suggest that yelling, “Raise the bar!” louder solves anything.

Mr. Jensen writes that research shows us that from the time a child is born, if he or she does not enjoy: 1) a strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support; 2) a safe, predictable, and stable environment; 3) 10 to 20 hours per week, starting during the first two years of his or her life, of harmonious and reciprocal interactions with caregivers; and 4) enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex interactions; he or she is negatively impacted for a lifetime. The “from the time a child is born” distinction cannot be ignored, but Gunlock and Jones, and others like them insisted on doing so.

We also know that these four essential factors, along with many, many others, are often missing from the homes of children who grow up in poverty. This places them at a significant disadvantage FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Yet, Jones and Gunlock did nothing to address this most fundamental problem. They just yelled a little louder.

If, in Gunlock’s and Jones’s absence, we allow current policy makers with the same philosophy — and there are many — to continue down this foolhardy path unchecked, we are dooming another generation of children to a lifetime of hardship they do not deserve. Since our “leaders” won’t stop it, we must.

At one time, I believed that the way to change what was happening was to engage in intelligent, research-based conversations with people in state leadership positions. But, over time, I learned that they have no interest in basing their policies on rational, research-based information. They are far more dedicated to their party’s political platform than to the children they claim to be helping.

So, it is high time we send the rest of the “raise the bar” brigade on their merry way with Jones and Gunlock so people can prevail.

Our children deserve at least that much from us.

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Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.