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A Mistake Even Well-Meaning Teachers Make

February 2024 Blog

“The invisible discrimination of low expectations." I recently heard this phrase uttered by a district leader, and the words could not have resonated with me more - as a leader, a teacher and a parent of teens with learning differences.


Teachers' belief about what a student can achieve still ranks number one for it's effect-size on student learning, and yet we are still fighting an invisible battle of low expectations for traditionally marginalized students.


I have observed many school leadership and teacher teams where comments harboring low expectations - specifically about students with learning differences, students of color, multilingual learners (MLLs), and students who experience poverty or trauma - go unnoticed and unaddressed. One reason:


Low expectations hide behind a cloak of well-meaning intentions.



Now here's the kicker…


The above comments are not always uttered by the burned-out teacher who has given up; these are spoken by teachers who deeply care about student success.


Teachers who care deeply about their students' success,

can harbor invisible, low expectations.

Skillful Team Leaders (STLs) intentionally 

illuminate hidden low expectations and raise them. 

Low expectations of traditionally marginalized students go beyond the individual teacher and point to deeply flawed, long-term beliefs that have been allowed to perpetuate through education's systems, structures, policies and practices. 


However, there are small moves skillful team leaders (STLs) and their teams can take to heighten awareness and begin to raise expectations.


3 Sample STL prompts in response to a low-expectations comment: 


  • “There might be some truth in what you say, but… (insert high-impact belief statement).”


  • “These words are well-meaning but seem to be harboring low expectations of this student. What would it look and sound like if we raised our expectations?"


  • “I'm noticing that we are defaulting to a common negative stereotype we hear a lot about (e.g., students of color, student with learning disabilities, MLLs, students who have experienced trauma…). How can we flip the narrative?"

In action example:


Team member: I expect my students to read 300 pages in an independent reading book each month. There's no way a child who has a disability and hates reading is going to do that.


STL: There might be some truth to that, but the child is capable of reaching the goal. We just have to work with them to find text that interests them that they can also access. Let's think of ways to do this.

For more in action examples and leadership moves that heighten awareness of low expectations and shift talk and practice,

delve into my new bestseller, Intentional Moves.

I'd love to talk with you about implementing these or other Skillful Team Leadership moves with your teams.

Once you start implementing leadership moves on your team to highlight and address teachers' well-meaning comments that harbor low expectations, shift practice to raise them. Here are a few resources to begin to support your team:


Zaretta Hammond (Amplify podcast, 2023) “When the scaffold stays [up] too long, it becomes a crutch and the child actually believes they cannot learn without it.”



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