Raising and Lowering the Bar: or, That Time I Almost Failed a Class

Before I delve into this post, I wanted to apologize for how long it’s been since I last updated! I’ve been busily applying to jobs (another post to be written). During this time, the topic of education, privilege, and race have caught my attention. This is the first of a series I’m writing in response to some of these issues.  Photo Credit: http://www.google.com/imgres?start=103&biw=1366&bih=643&tbm=isch&tbnid=hxIBq1Osr397aM:&imgrefurl=http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/26/fairfax-county-teachers-i_n_2765101.html&docid=yukHwWV3-yNSfM&imgurl=http://i.huffpost.com/gen/988506/thumbs/r-TEACHERS-LGBT-ISSUES-large570.jpg%253F6&w=570&h=238&ei=rnRrUZuiLdLh4APG2ICgCA&zoom=1&ved=1t:3588,r:3,s:100,i:13&iact=rc&dur=312&page=6&tbnh=145&tbnw=280&ndsp=22&tx=162&ty=7 In my magnet public high school, I always took a full honors and A.P. course load that prepared me for college-level classes. That’s why most might be surprised that the course I probably did the “worst” in my high school career was my regular economics class. That’s right, regular, not A.P. or honors. But here’s the kicker: the reason I did “poorly” was not because of the difficulty of regular econ, but ironically it was too easy. Truth be told, I was bored.

To give you an understanding of the class, the hardest concept was supply and demand. We had these workbooks filled with the most banal questions: “When you go to the supermarket, what do you buy? How much does it cost?” Yawn! These were filler questions that did nothing to test my knowledge of the material. I wasn’t learning anything so I didn’t bother with this homework. But I was used to honors and A.P. courses where the majority of your grade came from your test. However, in regular classes, homework allotted for over 50% of your grade – something I was not used to! When the teacher found out I was going to Harvard, he was stupefied. I swear, he deliberately would pick on me during class (as I drifted off), expecting me to not know the answer, and every time I would know the correct answer. So when it came down to it, even though I aced tests and answered all the questions he threw my way, I was doing poorly in the class because of the mundane homework.

However, the terrible class taught me something valuable (and it wasn’t economics). I learned how these regular classes all had lower expectations for their students. Because they didn’t expect their students to be able to ace these tests, they added filler homework to pad grades. While I do think homework is valuable, I found this kind of homework did nothing to teach or reinforce material taught in the class – at least not in an exciting or engaging way. No wonder why some students hate school and hate homework! No wonder how some high schools are not preparing their students for college courses!

There have been discussions about how to proceed in fixing the achievement gap between low-achieving students and high-achieving students, but studies have shown that when teachers have lower expectations for certain students, those students will achieve lower. In Robert Rosenthal’s study, teachers were told five (random) students had high IQs, and by the end of the year, these five students’ IQ scores jumped higher than other students. These teachers expected more and these students were receptive to the encouragement. NPR has also explored the effects of teacher expectations. When you set the bar low, you only want to step over it. When you set it high, you jump with all your might.

Both nature and nurture really determines intelligence. When I was in elementary school, apparently my test grades enrolled me in the gifted and talented education program (GATE). I wonder where I would be now without my teachers who thought I was special, who motivated me, and taught me to love learning. For these reasons, I find myself pushing against some contemporary methods of closing the achievement gap. Virginia and Florida have adopted education goals that are higher for white and Asian students than for African Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities. Apparently “Asians [are] at the top, African-Americans [are] at the bottom,” Virginia Democratic state Senator Donald McEachin said, reacting with shock to these new standards. Florida too have adopted race based academic goals.

What exactly are these goals? The Huffington Post summarizes: “The mandate stipulates that by 2018, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students are to be reading at or above grade level. The state also wants 86 percent of white students, 92 percent of Asians, 80 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks to be at or above their math grade level, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.”

Even if these goals put Asians “at the top,” as an Asian American I am appalled. What if I had been in all classes like my regular economics class? I would have been bored, unmotivated to do dull homework, and with teachers who thought I was a “bad” student. I don’t know if I would be attending such a prestigious college now. It pains me to think about the students who have been racially categorized to fail – who didn’t have warm, supportive teachers and stimulating material to learn. Instead of placing the blame on the students (and their race), we need to reevaluate our educational system that apparently expects some to succeed and others to fail.


5 thoughts on “Raising and Lowering the Bar: or, That Time I Almost Failed a Class

  1. Agreed. Rosenthal’s study, also known as the Pygmalion Effect, is a methodology we value in my work culture and something I firmly believe in as well. Like you mentioned, teacher expectations are of paramount importance; teachers must be motivating and must promote a love for learning. However, I think praise must be genuine and most importantly limited, so the child does not seek praise as extrinsic value. Their love for learning must be intrinsic. There is definitely a fine line that adults/parents/educators must be wary of!




  2. I nearly failed my first year university economics course. I was not a brilliant student acing 90% out of 100 in my courses. Just to be in 80% level for courses was a feat for me.

    And it was more because I was expecting myself to excel rather than focusing on subjects/courses where I passionate interest: I did very well in those areas academically.

    I’m still here. It’s just not my forte. I’m saddened about lowering the bar for students in general, especially on race.

    I would like stress so strongly that academic excellence at university still doesn’t chart the course of a person’s working career after graduation. I’ve been blessed with some great job experiences and have grown in directions I never expected at university. It is not only academic intelligence, but also emotional intelligence that a person hopes to acquire in life to become a more fully well-rounded person.

    Good luck on job hunt. Let us know.


    • Alice L says:

      I definitely agree that academic excellence doesn’t predict anyone’s career projection in the future. There are a lot of skills needed in life that exceed beyond knowing an answer to a test. Ha ha, yes, the job hunt…still working on it. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jean! I love your responses. 🙂


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