– Sylvia Plath
In August, I was writing my paternal grandmother’s obituary upon her death at the age of 84. I always knew she attended Simon Gratz Public High School in Philadelphia. But as I spoke with my grandfather and great aunt, neither could confirm if my grandmother actually graduated from high school.
These facts speak to a time over 60 years ago when opportunities and expectations were different for many African-Americans. Some may still debate how much this has changed for African-Americans in low-income communities, but I see glimmers of hope and movement in the right direction.
The deadline for states to submit their proposals for the latest round of funding in the Race to the Top program—a United States Department of Education sponsored contest to spur public education innovation and reforms—looms near.
President Obama’s successor program to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind rewards approaches that utilize performance-based standards for teachers and principals and comply with nationwide standards. Both programs draw praise from some and critiques from others. But for me, what is most important is that these programs represent the biggest effort in recent history to set higher expectations for our nation’s children.
My parents set very high expectations for me. And my grandparents set high expectations for them. That’s why not being able to confirm that my grandmother was a high school graduate was so astounding.
I was surprised because my grandmother had such high expectations for her son (my father). She and my grandfather not only expected him to graduate high school, but even attend college.
But as my mother says reflecting on her own parents, hard-working folks that dropped out of high school to help support their families: “Notwithstanding their own academic attainment, they understood and placed a high value on education and as a result had high expectations for their children.” Two stories demonstrating her point come to mind.
When my mother was in junior high school, her guidance counselor recommended she take the cosmetology track in high school despite the fact that she was an honor roll student who had even skipped a grade prior to junior high. My grandfather—a security guard—and my grandmother—a custodian—knew cosmetology was a respectable profession. But their expectation was that their daughter would go on to college and law school and become a lawyer, a career in which she expressed interest from an early age.
So my grandfather marched up to that school and told them in no uncertain terms that his daughter was going to be put on the academic track in high school because that was what was necessary to gain admission to college and he knew she could do it. Because of her parents’ high expectations, my mother went on to college; then earned a law degree; and practiced law prior to spending 20 years serving as a Judge.
My father had a different experience. He was educated in parochial schools, attending a Catholic high school far from his home and parish due to overcrowding. He remembers how teachers and administrators in that school didn’t take much interest in helping him with his college search process.
But my paternal grandparents had created the expectation that their son would attend college. So my grandfather took my father to the local office of Model Cities—part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs—and at this office, my father received the help he needed to apply to college. Not only did my father graduate from college, but he eventually went on to earn a Master’s of Social Work and built a career focused on helping others.
I recount these anecdotes about my family because at their core, programs like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind raise expectations for our nation’s children. Both of my parents are a product of high expectations which led them from humble beginnings to earning college and graduate degrees. So am I.
The lesson for me in all this is that a culture of high expectations is essential to putting us on a path to closing the achievement gap. Whether it’s Race to the Top or something else, programs that raise the bar for all kids are imperative for our nation’s long-term success and prosperity.
Michael Lewis is the Senior Managing Director of Constituent Strategy and Insights at Teach For America. After graduating from Wesleyan University (CT), Michael went on to work for about 10 years in the private sector. After joining the board of trustees of the Bronx Charter School for Excellence (BCSE), he decided to make a career change and focus his full-time efforts on education reform by joining Teach For America’s staff as Senior Managing Director of Constituent Strategy & Insights. Michael is happy to report that BCSE was just named a 2012-2013 Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.