Public education has long been a petri dish through which many of society’s challenges, quirks, triumphs and conflicts have passed.

Emerging, in fits and starts from the pandemic, U.S. children are confronting many of the same unique adjustments that their parents are facing, but perhaps with a sharper edge because of their youth and relative inexperience.

To mitigate the enormous upheaval represented by cancelled classes, virtual schooling and an unprecedented loss of structure in adolescent lives, many high schools adjusted their standards.

Well-meaning though it was, what we are learning is that limiting or eliminating rigor, expectations and standards does not, in fact, make life any easier because it doesn’t offer students more opportunities for growth, learning and development.

Neil Postman, in his brilliant and prophetic Teaching as a Subversive Activity, wrote, “There is … considerable evidence to indicate that people can become what others think they are. … becoming is always a product of expectations — one’s own or someone else’s.”

A common response to student struggles in the wake of their return to school has been to offer students no grade lower than 50%.

At first glance, this sounds fantastic because a zero has always been a death knell for an overall academic average. The threat of a zero, though, does have a way of motivating our young children to make some kind of effort on most assignments.

In the absence of a significant consequence for not turning in work, far too many students concluded that they would take their chances with a 50% average while doing some of the work and perhaps sliding into a passing overall grade, all the while completing far less than half the actual assignments.

Other schools eliminated deadlines, offering endless opportunities to turn in assignments well after the deadline, sometimes bleeding into the next grading period.  This is difficult on the teachers struggling to keep track of multiple moving targets in terms of assessments, and it leaves kids recognizing that they have multiple assignments hanging over their head with no clarity on when it must be completed.

What would have once been a stressful moment as a student found a way to turn an assignment in on time or perhaps with a negotiated later deadline has now become a litany of chaotic, near-forgotten, omni-present work that needs to be turned in – sometime.

The 50% rule is sometimes applied alongside the no-deadline rule, so we’ve got kids engaging in Faustian bargains, wondering just how far they can let everything slip before disaster strikes. The real disaster is in the profound lack of accountability that we have created.

Yes, people suffered in isolation. Depression abounded. Anxiety around other people remains a major issue for many. But we aren’t learning how to deal with those issues by staying at home in our darkened rooms.

Many schools have all but abandoned attendance policies in an effort to protect kids and families from themselves as they avoid the very place that would help them climb out of the darkness.

So, now we have minimal expectations for completing quality work and no enforcement of showing up each day to learn and to follow the rules. As if to say, we’re just glad you’re here today, so we’re going to ignore the reality that you are following none of the rules that are inherent to a school building.

These well-meaning measures have led to a profound erosion in every aspect of the school going culture.

Teacher morale, always a tenuous issue in a country which has often demonized educators as power mongers, groomers and incompetents who sought the job for the summer vacation, is as bad as it has been, perhaps ever.

Educators are leaving the field in droves, often during the school year, declaring that they can’t manage the feral kids, the ever-changing expectations of administration, and the angry parents demanding better grades for less effort.

Perhaps most devastating, though, is the loss of a sense that we are making a difference. If nothing is at stake, what difference does our job make? How do we matter? How do we make kids care if there is nothing to care about?

And yet, magic still happens in many classrooms.

When the phones get put away and a talented teacher with a chalkboard – or more likely a Smart Board – finds a way to inspire a group of students who have been painfully free of any sort of inspiration for far too long, the result is extraordinary.

Relationships can still be formed, lessons can still be learned, and structure can still be created, but it has gotten much harder.

It should be lost on no one that most teachers got into the profession because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids, which, in theory, should have ripples in eternity. As it is, teachers often question whether they can have the most minimal impact on any daily choices the kids make because nothing seems to be at stake.

We have to make kids come to school. Once they get here, we have to do them the profound favor of holding them accountable for their efforts and their actions.

Eroding expectations, even in the name of fairness, kindness, rehabilitation or ensuring that the graduation rate remains high, does not enhance the academic experience, it cripples it.

The kids know that their “A” doesn’t mean as much as it should, and they are aware that their diploma does not represent four years of growth, labor and learning.

In trying to meet everyone where they are, we have diminished the institution of high school and utterly failed to show kids that their potential is unlimited because we have eliminated the need for and appreciation of resilience, made it acceptable to shirk one’s duty, and all but dismantled the very notion that hard work is a prerequisite for success.

If the goal of high school is to prepare burgeoning young adults for what is to come next in their lives, then we have, congruent with our lack of academic expectations, failed to offer any meaningful standard.

Contrary to our stated mission and our intended outcomes, we are likely raising a generation of kids who feel no fealty toward the academic experience because they accurately feel that they did not benefit from it.

Standards and rigor are synonymous with a sense of accomplishment. In the absence of meaningful expectations, self-esteem crumbles.

In the absence of self-esteem – the very building block of a meaningful life, for students, for teachers, for administrators and for alumni – what do we have?

To hold someone accountable is, ultimately, an act of love. It’s not too late to start over.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series calling attention to Public Schools Week (February 27 – March 3, 2023).

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