NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Low Expectations and Low-Level Work

April 27, 2004

Except for Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes, in far too many public schools much of the classroom work is below grade level, says education consultant Ruth Mitchell. The reason is low expectations and poor teacher training, says Mitchell.

In one Midwestern city, Mitchell found one out of eight assignments at grade level in two high schools. A colleague who visited about 40 English classes at a West Coast high school found just one where real learning was going on.

A West Coast group called DataWorks has been analyzing the work given to students since the late 1990s. Among their findings:

  • In one California elementary school, 2 percent of the work in the fifth grade was on grade -- thus 98 percent of the work that students were doing was at the level of the fourth, third, second and even first grades.
  • In South Carolina, DataWorks found that most of the 12th-grade work looked at in 14 high schools was just below 10th grade level.

The consequences of low-level work are seen in poor test results: Students given only work that is below their grade level cannot pass standardized tests about material they have never seen.

However, observations made in the Dallas Independent School District show that students who score well have teachers who cover the curriculum appropriate to the grade level. These teachers spend little time on drill and practice, and don't remediate in the classroom but rather get help for students outside of class.

Poorly trained teachers without subject-matter degrees at the elementary level are now faced with requirements that students learn material at certain grade levels. Their training was simply not adequate to the new demands of standards-based accountability in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Source: Ruth Mitchell, "Dumbing Down Our Schools," Washington Post, April 27, 2004.


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