Oklahoma City educator, author and blogger (thisweekineducation.com) John Thompson offered me this piece on the complexity of expectations from every direction when trying to improve the atmosphere of urban high schools. It helps explain many of the unpleasant surprises of a new school year, and suggests how we might deal with them better than we do.

By John Thompson

In 1993, just before clocking in for my first day in a neighborhood school, I took two punches to the head while breaking up a gang-related fight. No consequences were assessed.

I still did not recognize the power of “rational expectations” in the way we run our urban schools until the next year when I taught freshmen. I had spent August camping with many of our incoming students. As always, the white country folk who ran the camp complimented the dignity of our poor black kids, saying that they showed more responsibility than middle-class campers. So, it was a double jolt to witness the horrible behavior of so many of the same kids as they entered high school. Clearly, there was an expectation that teens, who knew how to act properly at church or on the job, would often start running wild as soon at they stepped into a school building.

Our administrators understood the importance of getting off to a good start, but about half of the time circumstances beyond their control created anarchy. And that year we faced a triple whammy due to asbestos removal, teacher cutbacks, and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees in classrooms.

One former camper/basketball buddy took advantage of the confusion to arrive late for class and then talk while I was talking. When I called my student on it, he started sucking his thumb.

A couple of weeks later, I overheard some students who had just learned that a teacher had finally arrived for their class. The freshmen’s initial reaction was to stop cutting class, but an older kid said, “No!” Demonstrating the essence of rational expectations, the student explained that then the teacher would recognize them, and “you’ll have to go from then on.”

When I broke up a football game, involving dozens of students, in the hall during class, the assistant principal did not appreciate it. The award-winning teacher who should have been teaching them had been called to the other side of the building to address a more pressing crisis.

Previously, the school had been effective in pushing drug dealers to the edges of the property, but a gang-banger took control of the teacherless room next to mine. When I started to deal with the situation, the assistant principal was adamant that that was none of my business.

That principal coined the mantra of our district’s administrators. Their job was to “keep the plate spinning until June.”

We should reject the administrator’s philosophy, but her sincerity and courage were unchallenged. When the assistant principal faced down a student with a loaded gun, she did not know that it lacked a firing pin.

Around that time, data-driven “reformers” started to claim that “low expectations” by teachers explained the achievement gap. In reality, those expectations were just a part of a complex web of rational expectations by all stakeholders. The mentality of just “keep the plate spinning” was a rational expectation of a century of underfunding as well as generations of Jim Crow.

In the previous decade, “Supply Side Economics” had wiped out our city’s industrial jobs as the banking system’s collapse and the Reagan Administration’s HUD scandal destroyed our neighborhoods, creating an ideal environment for the crack epidemic. Education funding before our 1990 tax increase was $3,202 per student. The old timers said that the 1970s had been worse as “white flight” and racial violence followed desegregation.

Neither has the last decade been a picnic for urban educators and families. “Reformers,” however, are still missing the point. Low expectations by educators are just one piece of the problem. The challenges brought from home are not the only reasons why schools bring out so much of the worst in everyone. It is the legacy of decade after decade of complex and overwhelming social problems that have created low, but rational, expectations for low-income schools. The culture of powerlessness that cripples today’s neighborhood schools must be seen in the context of generations of disrespect for urban education.

We cannot intimidate people into having higher expectations. The rational path to reform requires the empowering of the adults and students in our schools. And I do not see why such an approach would be so frightening. Despite all of the awful things I have seen, rarely have I seen students or educators who did not want to make themselves better.