Some people succeed in life despite being branded as low achievers in school. But they’re the exception. More typically, if schools set low expectations for students, they won’t realize their potential.
That’s why the Portland Public Schools is committed to the belief that all learners can rise to high expectations. That’s the first of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning.
This is the first in a series of columns focused around our Learning Beliefs. Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, is joining me in writing this series. This month, we focus on why we set high expectations for our students.
Research shows that when teachers teach with a “growth mindset,” all their students progress and develop more. We strive to instill a growth mindset – which tells our students that they can achieve more if they work hard – by encouraging them to see learning challenges as opportunities.
One of our many successful graduates is a perfect case in point.
Jacqui Savage, a 2001 Deering High School graduate, started in our school system as a senior who lacked confidence in her ability to succeed in school because she struggled with standardized tests. Then, in the music program at PATHS, she found a teacher who believed in her.
“Ms. Victoria Bradford – now Mrs. Stubbs – was a great teacher and encouraged me to sing and perform more. It just felt good,” Jacqui said. “It definitely gave me a push to go to college, when I didn’t feel like I was very good at school and wasn’t sure it was the right path for me. But ultimately I decided college was a way for me to become a music teacher.”
Jacqui graduated from the University of Maine with a music education degree and today runs her own music school in Falmouth. Read about the Success Stories of Jacqui and other PPS graduates at https://www.portlandschoolspromise.org/story/.
We don’t just believe in our students’ potential – we help them realize it. Teachers do this in many ways, such as by conveying confidence in students, supporting their development by assigning meaningful tasks that motivate and push them, and by providing timely and constructive feedback.
One concrete way this plays out in our schools is exemplified by King Middle School math teacher Ann Young. She uses math routines and tasks with “low floor” entry points and “high ceiling” challenge opportunities so all her students get access to rigorous math, along with the support they need to access challenging tasks.
Young puts it this way: “We believe that all students can learn math to high levels.” She presents tasks that have an entry point for all, but can lead to high-level math concepts. For instance, Young said she might give students a problem, such as 1.2 x 3.6, and ask them to mentally calculate a solution and share how they got their answer.
“Several methods are displayed,” she said. “The class discussion is then orchestrated to address fluency and concepts in need of review, yet at the same time introduce higher level algebra concepts that are either at grade level or beyond.”
In another example of high expectations, Deering High School has a “Challenge by Choice” policy that allows any student who wants to do so to take higher-level classes, including Advanced Placement courses. That has led to more students – including more minority students – taking those classes. In a Maine Public radio story last fall, students said they welcomed the learning challenge.
We also set high expectations for reading. At our elementary schools, for example, students practice reading at their independent reading level, while at the same time – with teachers providing scaffolding and support – they have the opportunity to access complex texts that may be above their reading level. Research shows the ability to read and comprehend complex text is essential for success in college and career.
In short, the Portland Public Schools strives to challenge every student to rise to high standards and supports them in reaching them.
Next month, we’ll focus on our second Core Learning Belief – that students learn in different ways and time frames.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.