The Dumbing Down of Expectations

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Oregon becomes the latest state to abandon quality in pursuit of false equity.

As a new school year unfolds and students face yet another year of learning disruptions, policy leaders across the country should be doing everything in their power to ensure every student is equipped with an education that will help them succeed. Unfortunately, some politicians lack the conviction to enact sound policy that puts students first and, instead, have embraced a race-to-the-bottom mentality.

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Rather than implement plans to turn around plummeting student achievement, create new pathways for kids to access a school tailored to their needs, or innovate with strategies to customize a child’s learning experience, Oregon governor Kate Brown quietly signed a brand new bill that hands all Oregon students a high-school diploma, irrespective of whether they can read, write, or demonstrate proficiency in math.

In other words, Oregon is lowering the bar and lowering expectations, granting students the credential of an “effective” K–12 education without making sure they’re equipped with the fundamental skills they need for a successful life.

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that Brown’s intentions are in pursuit of “education equity.” Proponents of Brown’s decision claimed Oregon’s existing standards resulted in fewer minority students graduating high school. So in Brown’s upside-down world, the solution was simple: lower the bar and increase graduation numbers.

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That does zero to serve students. In effect, what Governor Brown is saying is that the school system is fine; it’s the students who are broken — namely, minority students.

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Frankly put, this is asinine. It’s a backwards approach that underestimates the potential of every student, and lets the system, charged with educating the rising generation, off the hook for providing kids with the quality education they deserve.

As a former governor who used data to inform policy, I didn’t have to dig much before seeing how Oregon’s approach is deeply flawed and sets students on a dangerous path.

Oregon’s students are already underperforming. Between 2016–17 and 2018–19, all Oregon students trailed the national average in the state’s four-year high-school graduation rate. Black and white students were about 10 percent lower than the national average for their peers. Oregon’s students deserve a quality education, not artificial attempts at “education equity.”

As you peel back the onion, the sting gets worse. According to the 2019 Nation’s Report Card, more than 60 percent of Oregon fourth- and eighth-grade students are reading below grade level.

As Florida’s governor, I faced a similar challenge, but I believed then, as I do now, in the potential of every student. Instead of lowering expectations, we raised them — and demanded excellence from our educators and our schools. Back in 1998, the year I took office, Florida’s graduation rate was an appalling 52 percent, the worst in the nation, with only 42 percent of black students graduating on time. And our fourth-grade students’ reading abilities lagged behind the national average by more than a half-grade level.

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After more than two decades of increased rigor, higher expectations, and steady improvement, Florida’s high-school graduation rate is now 87 percent, which is above the national average and represents a 35-point increase. Even more impressive is the performance of Florida’s black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged students, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities: They are all graduating high school at above and beyond the national average. And our fourth graders now read six points above the national average — representing a 13-point increase. This significant academic growth demonstrates that when you raise expectations, kids rise up to meet them. Just look at Florida’s Hispanic students who are today reading at nearly half a grade above their peers.

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The best form of education equity is setting high expectations for all students, providing resources to help underserved students meet those higher expectations, and offering more choices and flexibility to families so they can craft the best education for their children.

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Governor Brown need only to look to other parts of the country to know her approach doesn’t work. Twelve years ago, Minnesota similarly lowered expectations, and by the 2018–19 school year, graduation rates for Minnesota’s black students and economically disadvantaged high schoolers was around 10 percent lower than their peers on the national average. Despite ample evidence, Oregon isn’t alone in their backward thinking on this. California and Virginia also lowered their student expectations in pursuit of social justice, and it’s just a matter of time before more progressives follow suit and embrace this regressive, harmful approach to education.

Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan reminded us that our country’s potential and greatness is “never more than one generation away from extinction.” Now more than ever, education is critical to the success of our children and our nation. The effort political leaders, policy leaders, administrators, educators, and parents pour into the rising generation pays off in dividends. But for every corner we cut, for every student who is shortchanged, for every student who isn’t given the education they deserve, we aren’t reaching a more “equitable” state — but rather we’re plummeting on a downward spiral.

I believe that every student can achieve their God-given potential and graduate high school with the ability to read, write, and do math. And I refuse to accept the belief that the education system — now funded at nearly $1 trillion — cannot do more to meet the needs of each and every child. Rather than taking the easy way out and simply writing kids and their futures off, Governor Brown should do the hard work to fix her state’s flawed adult-centric system that’s clearly failing its children.

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