The Paradox of High Expectations

Recently, I received an invitation to a group on Facebook that filled me with a strange joy and abject terror.

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Yes. It is, in fact, time for my 10-year reunion. Time seriously flies.

I do want to make something clear: I loved high school. I had a great group of friends, and thankfully still have many of them in my life. I had great teachers who pushed me, challenged me, and also humor me with a visit when I come back. All-in-all, I was very, very lucky, and look back on high school with great fondness– a privilege I know that not a lot of people have, even at my own school.

Still, I dealt with taunting– some of it the normal high school stuff, but some, as  I’ve written about, around race. In middle and early high school, I remember quite a bit of racially charged taunting, and I know my older brother faced similar things. Anecdotally, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb– one of a small handful of dark-skinned kids in my classes.

Some of the data backs me up: according to my high school’s WASC report in 2004, the year prior to my graduation, my school’s student population was 69% White, 13% Asian-not-Filipino, and 11% Latino. Certainly not a TINY number (the school’s Black population is and remains much smaller, and I face smaller numbers in Hawai‘i), but it wasn’t a huge representation.

Still, I felt like I remembered a much smaller percentage of exposure to Latino students in my experience. Was I wrong? Had I painted a picture that made my struggles more valid but wasn’t exactly true?

Possibly, but as more people joined the facebook group, I realized that there were other folks joining who could be Latino– they had Latino last names, their faces looked much more like mine– I just hadn’t known them in high school. In a school of nearly 3,000 students, it’s easy to lose some, but I honestly felt like I hadn’t really interacted with many  these classmates. What happened the separated my experience from theirs at the same school?

Then, I realized that one day in elementary school changed much of my life. In 4th grade, I was accepted into the district’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.

Actually, I didn’t get a high enough score to qualify–I was close, but not quite there. Instead, a teacher appealed to the school to let me in, and they did. I remembered this story well, because that teacher, Mrs. Dalton, is one of many who stepped into my life to help– and ultimately inspired me to become a teacher.

Being in GATE meant I got to take “accelerated” classes once I got to middle school. Being in “accelerated” English immediately gave confidence in my own intellect. Though I have little aptitude for math, I took “accelerated” math, overcame lack of natural skill with basic knowledge, and took (and did decently in) AP Calculus during junior year. While AP classes are open to all students in high school, I don’t know if I would’ve had a solid enough foundation and work ethic to succeed in them without that training in middle school.

Being on the GATE track in middle school also meant I had classes with the same students, some of whom became close friends in high school. Instead of slacking or trying to make out with boys– activities I may have tended towards if left to my own devices– my friends were all really smart, and keeping up meant a lot of hard work (I did some making out, much to everyone’s dismay).

They helped me when I struggled, they cheered my successes, and we all mourned difficult assignments together. I not only found a group of friends who pushed me to succeed, but classes and teachers who nurtured my mind and voice.

Their positive peer pressure kept me going when I considered dropping out of some AP courses– if only so that I could stay in the same classes as my friends– and got me the grades to go to college. While we didn’t take every AP course, the expectation of academic success permeated our high school lives, and eventually became part of my own mindset: I did well in school because I was supposed to. A prestigious college wasn’t a question, it was an expectation that we would all undoubtedly meet.

Then, I think about what happened to the other students in my district who were close, but not quite there, and didn’t have parents or teachers advocating for them.
Or ELL students.
Or students who didn’t get offered the GATE test.
Or even students who just blossom academically later, because 9-years-old is a bit young to judge the life-long academic capability of student.
I can’t help but wonder if there are correlating relationships between students in GATE/AP courses and race in my community (data I lack). Studies shows us that, on a national level, GATE programs do end up stratifying by race.

Obviously, you don’t need AP courses to be successful in life, but it certainly helped our academic success. I can’t help but wonder if my experience as “one of the few” students of color wasn’t my imagination, but an unintentional result of systemic racism playing out in my district.

And… there’s the paradox. Without question, I benefited from this privilege. The fortune of having a caring teacher and dedicated family led to classes and peers that challenged and bettered me. The high level of academic expectation externally led to an internal expectation for myself. It’s because I was in an “accelerated” section that I not only gained valuable skills and knowledge, but came to really love school. There is certainly a benefit in high-performing students being placed in courses that push their academic abilities.

Still, experience as an adult also shows me those same practices could systematically disenfranchise students who don’t get marked as “gifted” early on (about 80% of my school’s population didn’t take GATE or AP courses). Those of us who teach know that students who are considered “low-to-middle” performing also benefit from the presence of high performing students, and those same “high” students benefit from their perhaps “less academically proficient” peers. This conversation, of course, glosses over larger questions of who creates the standards by which we measure students to begin with.

What’s the balance? How do we create nourishing environments that support students where they are, gets them to learn from each other, and acknowledges their needs? Do we need smaller schools with more individual attention? Is it providing multiple entry points into gifted programs? Is it just our job as teachers to also be searching for the “special” ones? Still, that ends up creating an elitist class in schools that may be complicit in current expectations around education.

I have very few answers. I’m just realizing that I walk a paradox of privileged gratitude, guilt, and questions every day.

(extra sidebar: I chose the featured photo because it had a large number of my high school friends and my cousin. This led me down a road of even more photos that I’m putting here just because they make me pretty happy:)

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2 thoughts on “The Paradox of High Expectations

  1. edifiedlistener says:

    Thank you, Christina, for exploring your personal experience to reflect on possible evidence of a much larger phenomena around race and academic tracking. Tracing data from your school demonstrates a genuine commitment to investigate, interrogate and hypothesize about how and why you ended up where you did whereas others who were also brown skinned and attending the same school likely had a different experience. Recognizing various forms and instances of our own privilege requires introspection and real curiosity. You’ve done that here
    expertly and I applaud your example. It is one we can all learn from. Please keep writing. Your perspective is illuminating.


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