The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

For the past six years, I have had the privilege of teaching at East Side High School in Newark, NJ. Founded in the early 1900s in the Ironbound, the school first served the many German, Polish, and Italian immigrant families that made the neighborhood their new home. This tradition continued as subsequent waves of new peoples settled in Newark and worked to realize the American Dream. East Side was built over a three-year period and opened in 1911. Interestingly enough, the resolution from 1908 “originally planned to erect a community high school of the traditional type, but it opened, finally, as the East Side Commercial and Manual Training High School—the first in the city of its kind.”

In a similar way, Columbia University’s Teachers College was built in the late 19th century. Started by Grace Dodge in Greenwich Village as a “kitchen garden” school, it aimed to “teach cooking, sewing, hygiene, and other practical arts to poor, immigrant women. By 1887, with the help of philosopher Nicholas Murray Butler and a site donated by the industrialist George Vanderbilt, Dodge’s kitchen garden school had evolved into something much greater: an entirely new kind of institution devoted to teacher education.”

Teachers College was the first graduate school of education in the country, and was created to prepare its students to teach the overwhelming number of immigrant children who were flocking to New York City. My beloved grandfather was one of these kids; his mom had come to America at the turn of the century. When Teachers College opened, the front entrance (formerly known as the Household Arts Building) had six mosaic panels installed on the theme of “home industries and home work of the Colonial housewife: sewing, spinning, churning, candle dipping, weaving, and cooking on an open fire.” Although well-intentioned, teachers at the time had profoundly low expectations for immigrant students; they wrongly believed that their only way forward was through a glorified form of home economics.

Teachers College has come a long way since its foundation. Outgoing President Susan Fuhrman recently stated that people like “John Dewey had ideas about how young people learn—and conceived the modern American classroom. Maxine Greene had the idea that the arts could help students make meaning of their world. She turned aesthetic awareness into a central tenet of modern education and the pursuit of social justice. Lawrence Cremin and Edmund Gordon helped us think about the community’s contribution to education. Learning occurs everywhere, and community context deeply affects the learning that happens in schools.” Today, TC leads by example, as it is setting the standard for next-generation EdTech. Professors like Christopher Emdin are nationally-recognized leaders in the field of culturally responsible pedagogy. Simply put, TC has raised the bar: ensuring that all students have access to a transformational education.

While I am proud of the steps that Teachers College has taken to increase the expectations that we have for our most vulnerable students, the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for many of our U.S. public schools. At the 91st annual convention of the NAACP, President George W. Bush had some strong words for those who fail to believe in our amazing students. Bush said that, “Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there’s racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations… we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own. While all can enter our schools, many-too many, are not learning there. There’s a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination… Equality in our country will remain a distant dream until every child, of every background, learns so that he or she may strive and rise in this world. No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and the darkness of self-doubt.”

Profound words from our 43rd President, but what does the research say? One of the most famous pieces of educational research is psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s Pygmalion in the Classroom Study. Its results demonstrated that teachers with high expectations for students consistently had students perform significantly better over time. In fact, Rosenthal suggested that “the results of the experiment further evidence that one person’s expectations of another’s behavior may come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development.” These findings are also consistent with the more recent work of Carol Dweck. Her research on growth mindset suggests that those with a growth mindset significantly outperform those with a fixed mindset over time. Other studies have found that teachers that have a high locus of control for student learning outcomes are more effective than teachers that tend to externalize their students’ performance.

In 1911, the Newark Board of Education opened East Side Commercial and Manual Training High School with the aim of preparing immigrant students for work in the factories and service professions found in abundance in the Ironbound.  During the intervening years, institutions such as Teachers College have challenged society’s ideas about what students from places like Newark can accomplish. Unfortunately, schools like East Side still find themselves struggling with setting high expectations for ALL students.

Paulsen Pic - 1.jpgI have heard, more often than I would care to admit, comments from some school faculty that unfairly question the potential of many of our exceptional students. I have also witnessed first-hand what those low expectations look like in front of a classroom full of young adults hungry to learn. Making ignorant comments about students, starting class twenty minutes after the bell has rung, and using outdated teaching methods do little to motivate students and challenge them to live up to their potential. I have even heard teachers talking about how little potential some of our students have, especially compared to their own children. Perhaps the fact that East Side’s original name still graces the entrance of our building is a testament to the soft bigotry of low expectations that permeates our school’s culture today.

That being said, I am constantly inspired by many of my colleagues, some of whom graduated from East Side and have returned to teach at their alma mater so as to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. While many similarly talented educators are at work in schools across the country challenging students to achieve new heights, too many other teachers working in urban and rural areas continue to doubt the ability of their students. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and we must re-think this paradigm if we are serious about moving our country forward.

Talking with surgeon Dr. Lee-Kong at the Herbert Irving Pavilion at Columbia/New York Presbyterian

If there is anything that I have learned over the course of the last six years, it is how much potential and resilience our students truly have. Last week, I had the privilege of taking a bunch of students to Columbia University’s Medical School at New York Presbyterian Hospital. That day, a plethora of doctors reinforced the virtues of sacrifice, perseverance, and giving back to the greater community. Their stories were profoundly inspirational. One doctor in particular shared his story of attending a high school with low expectations, and the major challenges he faced during his first year of university adjusting to college-level work. For me, his story further emphasized how important our work as educators really is, and how chronically-low expectations can severely affect a student’s educational trajectory. Working with teenagers can be innately stressful, but these stories reminded me that we must reject the soft bigotry of low expectations. They reminded me of the importance of having high expectations – for every single student.


Can We At Least Get The Transportation Right?

The landmark court case of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka [347 U.S. 483 (1954)], famously ruled that the “separate but equal” clause (originally established in Plessy v. Ferguson [163 US 537 (1896)]) was void. In the unanimous 9-0 decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the opinion of the court, including the notable phrase, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” making school segregation unconstitutional under the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.


Whereas most are aware that the Supreme Court took the case on appeal from the United States District Court for the State of Kansas, some are surprised to hear that the Brown case was actually a compilation of segregation cases throughout the south, including Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.). One case in particular, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County [103 F. Supp. 337 (1952)], was unique in that it was the only case born through grassroot student activism. This case was also of particular note, as it dealt with the issue of school facilities, curriculum, and busing, and argued that students from a segregated black school were not getting the same opportunities as those from the white school in the neighborhood.

The cover of the New York Times the day after the Brown ruling

In the Brown ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the District Court’s ruling in Davis, and found, “the Negro school inferior in physical plant, curricula, and transportation, and ordered the defendants forthwith to provide substantially equal curricula and transportation and to ‘proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove’ the inequality in physical plant.” Footnote 10 in the Brown ruling further explained that these systemic inequalities “results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated.”

Today, I feel keenly aware of these specific words in Warren’s opinion of the court: “substantially equal transportation.” More than 60 years after the Brown decision, I ask: what constitutes “substantially equal transportation” in 2017? While our schools today may not be legally segregated (although modern scholars and trends may disagree), our schools are undoubtedly segregated by socio-economic status. In the spirit of Warren’s opinion, I argue that many of the amazing students that attend the Title I school that I teach at in Newark, objectively receive transportation that is substantially unequal to that of their peers in Millburn or Livingston.

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Our Student Council visiting Dartmouth College this past Spring

As a chaperone on Student Council trips, I have been afforded the incredible opportunity to attend many college visits over the years. Of the dozens of field trips that I have helped lead, I can count on one hand how often our bus has been punctual. Time after time after time, I find myself calling a random bus company, asking why our bus is late, and what time the bus will arrive at our school. After getting on the bus (often hours after the scheduled pick-up time), I then have to call the college we are scheduled to visit, and apologize profusely that our group is going to be two or three hours late for our appointment, which typically means less time on campus for our students (many of whom are aspiring first-generation college graduates). Even once the buses do arrive, they are often outdated, not clean, and smaller than modern buses, with unknown safety records. On one trip in 2013, the bus company “mistakenly” sent only two of the three buses back to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, forcing a group of teachers to take the subway back to Newark in order to make it possible for all our students to cram onto the other two buses.

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Our Robotics team hard at work

Our Robotics Students have also had their fair share of issues with transportation problems. One of the more infamous stories include an overnight robotics trip in 2015. During the second day of the field trip, the team was waiting for the bus at the hotel, when they found out that the engine could not start. Since the competition had strict rules and regulations, the teachers on the trip had to pay for an “Uber” out of pocket for some of the members, while the rest of the team had to wait for an airport van to cram 8 people in it. After getting the bus working again, the driver claimed he was not aware that the trip was a multi-day event, and returned to Newark during the competition without notifying any of the teachers. This meant that our entire robotics team was stranded in another city hours away from Newark with no viable transportation options. After several demanding phone calls and hours after all of the other teams went home, another bus finally showed up. The next day, on the way back to Newark, the bus could not go faster than 15 miles per hour, and ended up breaking down in the middle of the highway. The bus started smoking, and students were forced to evacuate and stand on the shoulder of a busy highway; the chaperones on the trip immediately called the police and filed a report. A few hours later, a “rescue” bus showed up, and got the students home hours after their scheduled arrival.

Our Student Council, led by Ms. Naparano and Mrs. Wiseman, visiting TCNJ this past Monday.

As it has been said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This story played out yet again on our college visit to TCNJ two days ago. Our contract (see below) was approved for the bus to pick us up at 7:45am, but after twenty-three (23!!) phone calls and being disrespected and lied to over and over again, the bus finally showed up in front of our high school at 9:13am. On top of everything else, the driver had no directions to our destination. What was at one point a simple mistake that was disconcerting and frustrating, became yet another example of the perpetuation of inequality facing our most vulnerable students.

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These are just three stories regarding busing issues of literally hundreds that I could have shared that directly impact the students of the Newark Public Schools every single week. As someone who personally rode the bus to middle school daily, I can only remember one ‘freak incident’ that we had. For three full years, I took the public-school bus back and forth from school, almost always without a hitch. Truth be told, it would be forgivable if a school vehicle occasionally got a flat tire or caught in traffic. What my students contend with is not a couple of ‘freak incidents,’ but rather a broken system that clearly does not value the students of the Newark Public Schools and does not allow them access to the quality of transportation that students in more affluent areas take for granted. From my figurative seat on the bus, I am made acutely aware of the inferiority in transportation every time we have a field trip. I have tried everything at my disposal, including calling bus companies, sending e-mails, filing grievances, and even attending school board meetings; nothing seems to ever change. Perhaps it is time we finally “proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove all inequality in transportation,” as Earl Warren put forward more than sixty years ago. In 2017, there remains a plethora of adaptive challenges and deep-seated systemic racism and inequalities that persist in our public-school system that are going to require significant resources and innovative leadership to overcome. But seriously, can we at least get the transportation right?