District leaders, how are you ensuring that low expectations for student outcomes are not plaguing the school system and the stakeholders you are charged with leading?

During my junior year at a prestigious Catholic high school in New York City, a guidance counselor suggested I apply for a local, two-year college. This advice didn’t match my vision of attending the University of Connecticut, a four-year institution. Although confused, I did not question the advice since I was told that the counselors were there to help students pick schools that best matched their needs. Still, I did ask friends what college guidance the counselor had given them. I soon identified an unsettling pattern: In a school where 85% of students were white males, most students of color were advised to apply to two-year colleges. At 17, I was not empowered to challenge the low expectations and racial inequality that I was confronted with. It did not matter that I had scored above average on the SAT, which could have easily supported entry into a reputable four-year institution. In retrospect, I realized that an institution responsible for the equitable learning of all students had unfairly placed very low expectations on my learning ability because of the color of my skin.

Sadly, more than three decades later, I again witnessed the power of low expectations placed on students of color. I recently attended a middle school open house where school staff spoke to 8th grade students and their families about early college planning. The school guidance counselor led two separate sessions, dividing the grade into two groups. While the content was consistent for both sessions, there was a huge difference in the expectations communicated to each group. In the first group presentation, where the students were primarily white, the counselor advised, “If you don’t initially get into the college of your choice, consider attending a two-year school and then transferring into your original college of choice.” There was a subtle but monumental change to the advice given during the second session, which was primarily attended by students of color (blackboys). The counselor said, “Consider attending a two-year school and then transferring into your college of choice.” The omission of eleven simple words changed the connotation, the message and most importantly the expectations placed on students. White students were encouraged to first reach for their college aspirations, and then to plan accordingly if those dreams do not materialize. Students of color, however, were not advised to follow their dreams but simply to apply for the default. I don’t know if this was a simple mistake or a targeted attempt to impart separate expectations, but the message this counselor was sending (intended or not) is that students of color should aspire to less than their white counterparts.

After the session, I spoke with the principal and district superintendent, pointing out their omission and sharing my own experiences. I am thankful that my experiences allowed me to understand the inequity inherent in this situation. I ask district leaders to consider: How are you ensuring that low expectations for student outcomes are not plaguing the school system and stakeholders that you are charged with leading?