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Beliefs and Expectations

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by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, January/February 2002

What do we believe about students? Are they bright and eager to learn? Are they capable of mastering the high-quality mathematics education we prescribe in Principles and Standards for School Mathematics? Do they want to be successful in school? Do they have high expectations for their futures? Are they prepared to face the challenges needed to meet the goals they set for themselves? Do they see college in their futures?

Does our perception of students depend on who the students are? Do we expect less mathematics achievement from girls than from boys? Do we expect fewer problem solvers among poor children than affluent ones? Are rural students less capable of learning algebra than their suburban counterparts? Does our expectation of mathematics performance among minority students match the expectations we have for white students?

The first of the year is a traditional time to reflect on our lives, our hopes and dreams, our expectations and desires for the coming year. In this spirit, I ask the questions above and hope you will think deeply about what you believe about--and expect from--students in your mathematics classrooms.

Data from a recent survey of 7th through 12th graders, "The Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher 2001: Key Elements of Quality Schools," reveal that of the African American and Hispanic students polled, about 75 percent of them indicated that they had high expectations for their futures. In contrast, only 40 percent of teachers in schools with large numbers of minority students agreed with students' expectations for themselves. In general, only 25 percent of secondary school students believed that their teachers had high expectations for all students compared to only 39 percent of teachers who thought teachers had high expectations for all students.

Low-income and minority students compared to high-income and nonminority students were less likely to report that their teachers were helping them prepare for the future or that teachers encouraged them to do their best in school. Teachers who were surveyed echo this perception. Teachers from low-income or high-minority schools agreed that fellow teachers were less likely to have high expectations of low-income or minority students than teachers from high-income or nonminority schools. Furthermore, curricula available to low-income and minority students were believed to be less challenging by students and teachers from low-income and minority schools than the curricula of their counterparts in high-income and non-minority schools.

There is more. Secondary school teachers are less likely than their elementary counterparts to give high marks to their fellow teachers for caring about students (52 percent vs. 69 percent), having high expectations for all students (39 percent vs. 53 percent), believing that all students can learn (28 percent vs. 46 percent), and believing students can reach their full academic potential (59 percent vs. 79 percent). The report also indicates that secondary school students who reported having high-quality teaching compared to students reporting low-quality teaching are more likely to want to learn (70 percent vs. 35 percent) and have high expectations for their futures (78 percent vs. 51 percent); and secondary school students are less likely than their teachers to describe their classes as challenging (23 percent vs. 48 percent).

What teachers think and believe about their students has consequences that are real. What students think and believe about school and their teachers are also real and important to the education process. At the beginning of the school year, a mathematics teacher was heard commenting on the likelihood that her students, whom she had not met, would be able to pass the new state exam: "My students will never be able to do that!" When asked how she knew, she remarked, "The students I teach don't have the background or the desire to be successful in mathematics."

Principles and Standards raises the level of expectations for all students. If we do not believe that all students can master the standards we have identified, then reform-based mathematics education programs will merely maintain the status quo in classrooms all across the United States and Canada. Poor children, rural children, girls, minority children, and urban children are among those who will suffer if all the teachers who encounter them do not embrace the expectations of the Principles and Standards. This also includes the students themselves.

Developing a greater awareness and understanding of the students we teach is an important step in helping students obtain a high-quality mathematics education. Establishing school and classroom environments that are respectful of all students' life experiences is an important aspect of establishing high expectations and developing approaches to help students meet them. Diversifying the teaching and support staff to better reflect the demographics of students in the school is another important ingredient to embracing high expectations for all students.

First, establish high expectations as goals toward which students and teachers can work. The expectation that all students can be successful in a high-quality mathematics program begins as a work in progress when the belief is weak, but both the expectations and beliefs grow after experiences demonstrate that the goals are achievable. Examples of students achieving success exist all across the United States and Canada. NCTM journals, print materials, and electronic resources provide insights and support to make the vision of a high-quality mathematics education for all students a reality. An important first step for mathematics teachers is to reflect on what we believe about our students and on what we are prepared to do to make student successes real. Remember, we set higher standards not only for our students but also for ourselves.

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