We firmly believe that high expectations in every student’s ability to learn at high levels is more critical than the most highly evolved system of support. We now know neurobiologically, as we have long known behaviorally or experientially, that every student can learn. On the neurobiological front, studies of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity and electroencephalography (EEG), which maps electrical activity in the brain, have revealed that the “appropriate” parts of brains change as a result of high-quality instruction and intervention (Shaywitz, 2003, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2007; Freyer, Becker, Dinse, & Ritter, 2013). Every educator has experienced a student who learns “in spite of” the most significant obstacles imaginable.

Our favorite story is Christopher, a severely autistic student who was also mute—his parents had never heard him speak coherently. When we last worked with Christopher, he was in a sixth grade classroom for severely and profoundly disabled students and was reading solidly at a third grade level. How? It starts with his committed teacher, Rachel, who simply expected Christopher to achieve and involved sign language and a commonly utilized alternative reading program called Edmark. In our opinion, Christopher’s success had more to do with school culture and with staff members’ belief in themselves and in Christopher than with any structures or programs. Each of has students who have beaten the odds when we considered their success to be inevitable: Michael, Jonathan, Anayeli, Azucena, et al.

Yet, even if there remain doubts in some educators’ minds regarding the probability that all students can learn at high levels, our only option is to put forth our best efforts to help every student learn. We cannot advocate learning for some students. Which students would we choose?

Ethically, our profession demands that we expect the very best from ourselves and from all students at all times. Leaders and educators who do not launch every school year and school day with the firm belief that 100 percent of students will learn at high levels are doomed before they have begun. 

Belief and expectations in ourselves and our colleagues is as important as beliefs and expectations in our students. A teachers’ sense of self-efficacy is directly related to their students’ achievement (Dembo & Gibson, 1985; Bandura, 1993). The cultures and climates of schools must powerfully communicate the expectation that high levels of learning for all students are inevitable; we can make the difference; we simply need to find the right support for the specific need.

In the US, approximately 12% of students receive special education services and have a Individualized Education Program plan. Approximately 1% of students have been diagnosed with a severe or profound disability, meaning that they have the intellectual functioning that will significantly limit their ability to live an independent adult life. They will have modified jobs and accommodated living conditions. We feel blessed to live in societies in which we provide care and support for these precious individuals.

A review of the percentages in the above paragraph reveals a very important reality that directly impacts high expectations, or a lack thereof. The vast majority of students receiving special education services, students who have an Individualized Education Program plan, do not have a severe or profound disability and will be expected to live an independent adult life, without modified jobs and accommodated living conditions.

The critical implication is as follows: When we do not expect high levels of learning for all (and complement these expectations with intensive and targeted interventions as necessary), we significantly limit their future prospects with equally significant impacts on our societies. Students receiving special education services graduate from Grade 12 at rates that are demonstrably lower than their peers; they attend 4-year universities and colleges at equally lower rates (Samuels, 2015). 

We fear that tragically lower expectations for students receiving special education services has lead (and continues to lead) to their significantly lower achievement. And yet, despite they fact that schools accommodate and modify these students’ educational experiences (with unfortunately corresponding modifications to expectations), students within Individualized Education Program plans who do not have a severe or profound disability will be expected to compete and collaborate with rest of the 99% for a purposeful and productive adult life. 

Labeling students is a destructive and unproductive practice. Labeling proves to be even more maddening when we develop biases that are not even warranted – as ridiculous as that may seem. For example, the majority of students have been deemed eligible for special education services because they have a discrepancy between the intelligence and achievement. In other words, they have a normal intelligence, but are not achieving at a correspondingly normal level, and a disability is believed to be the explanation. In spite of our questions about the validity of eligibility of determinations  using this model (Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009), it seems illogical to expect less of students receiving special education supports when the very reason that they have been deemed eligible is because their intelligence seems to dictate they should be achieving at the same levels as their peers.

Let’s move beyond issues around special education: the intelligence quotient as a predictor of students’ later life success (Duckworth, Quinn, Lynam, Loeber, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2011; Nisbett, Aronson, Blair, Dickens, Flynn, Halpern, & Turkheimer, 2012) is a simply not accurate. We recognize that intelligence and the intelligence quotient are not entirely correlative; however, due the biases that schools and societies have adopted around these terms, we suggest that they effectively represent the same concept. Intelligence tests are effective at predicting how students will score on later intelligence tests, or on tasks that assess related skills. They are not entirely predictive of success in school or after school. For example, a student’s score on the SAT, particularly prior to its revisions in 2005 when the test most closely mirrored traditional intelligence tests (Frey & Detterman, 2004; Koenig, Frey, & Detterman, 2008), did not validly predict a students’ grade point average during the freshman year (Kobrin, Patterson, Shaw, Mattern, & Barbuti, 2008). And yet, the unfortunate and pervasive cultural consequences regarding perceptions of IQ profoundly effect educator’s expectations for students. Consider this quote from the concepts’ founder:

 [Some] assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest & react against this brutal pessimism…With practice, training, & above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, & literally become more intelligent than we were before.

Alfred Binet (1909). Les idees modernes sur les enfants, pp. 105-106.

According to Binet, intelligence is not fixed; it’s time we stop prejudging students’ abilities based on this man-made construct.

If you don’t believe in all students’ abilities to achieve at high levels, and you and your colleagues’ abilities to make that happen, then don’t bother going through the motions of designing systems of support. Collaborative systems of support will work when we will persist, expect, and believe.

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