Beware the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” President George W. Bush’s trenchant warning resonated across the political spectrum when he voiced it to the NAACP in 2000, and it has more or less driven federal education policy ever since. For many, educators and noneducators alike, it remains a touchstone of how to think about racial equity.
And yet, as seemingly transparent as the caution seems, it isn’t always easy to heed—isn’t always obvious how it applies to the real-world choices we face.
Consider CTE charters—schools of choice organized around helping students think about careers.
Once among the most disparaged forms of education in the U.S., career and technical education emerged in recent years as one of the most promising approaches to equipping students for the future.
For some educators, CTE is a means of preparing students to go directly from high school into the world of work or into postsecondary workforce education and training. For others, the rationale has more to do with engaging learners—young people who aren’t much motivated by academics but find that exploring a career or mastering a technical skill gives them reason to pay attention in class.
The last decade has seen much innovation in career education, yet most charter educators have kept their distance. Fixed on raising expectations among underserved students of color whose parents had not gone to college, charters have traditionally put priority on college access and academic success.
Many charter leaders saw education for careers as a throwback to the old dead-end vocational education, which was indeed once a dumping group for disadvantaged children. And encouraging charter schools to embrace CTE felt to many like renewed bigotry. “Don’t you dare,” a charter school leader once admonished me. “I’m educating students for Swarthmore and Harvard. Don’t you dare show up and tell them that the best they can do is be a welder or a nurse.”
But the evidence is mounting that career education improves student outcomes. A 2012 study of tenth graders found that CTE students scored higher on standardized tests, achieved higher GPAs, and showed more progress toward graduation than otherwise similar tenth graders. A 2015 study of dedicated CTE schools in Massachusetts found that their students were 23 percentage points more likely to graduate than similar students at nearby schools—and the effect was greatest among disadvantaged learners. A year later, in a study for the Fordham Institute, the same analyst found similar results in Arkansas.
A more recent study of CTE students who earn industry-recognized credentials in Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky found them more likely to graduate on time in all three states.
Bottom line: What may have once have looked to some like a second-rate option turns out to be a better choice for many students, whatever their race or ethnicity. Indeed, today the challenge may be reversed, as more white high school seniors are graduating with CTE credits than are their Black and Hispanic classmates. And contrary to thirty or forty years ago, these gaps are now seen as something to be rectified by enrolling more minority students in CTE programs.
Also in the last decade, a growing number of charter schools have focused on career education, adding or expanding technical instruction, cultivating employers who can offer internships, and developing courses that prepare students to earn industry certifications.
Data on CTE charters are skimpy, but anecdotal evidence abounds. A web scan by my organization surfaced some 200 charter schools nationwide adapting one or more career-focused instructional stratagems. And charters may be uniquely positioned to deliver on the promise of career education. They’re less rule-bound, nimbler, and often find it easier to partner with employers to create opportunities for work-based learning.
As career-focused schools of choice proliferate, many CTE educators have argued that they should be evaluated differently than other high schools, and charter authorizers, too, have struggled to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations.
In addition to the usual, required academic subjects, CTE students must master a corpus of technical skills. Internships and other work-based learning opportunities add hours to the school day. Teachers routinely point out that CTE programs require more of students than traditional high school curricula, and many educators clamor for metrics appropriate to their mission.
“We’re experimenting, we’re innovating, we’re different,” one career-focused charter school leader complained to me. “The state’s funding and accountability systems aren’t designed for schools like ours.”
Research conducted by my organization, Opportunity America, before the pandemic found authorizers wrestling with this challenge—how to “right-size” standards for CTE charters without lowering expectations for academic attainment.
Some authorizers have been experimenting with new approaches. Among the most promising stratagems is not easing standards, but adding metrics more likely to capture the benefits of career education—metrics such as the number of students who earn industry-recognized credentials, the number who earn dual-enrollment credit, and the number who take advantage of internships or other work-based learning opportunities.
Covid-19 has put a brake on this experimentation for now, but many authorizers face new demands to reconsider traditional school performance metrics. These appeals come from across the charter world, often from advocates citing hardships imposed by the pandemic, particularly on low-income communities and families of color. This is a time for charter authorizers to “rebalance accountability and support,” one proponent argues, “deprioritizing” oversight and school evaluations.
But thorny questions remain: Just when does the soft bigotry of low expectations kick in? Where’s the line between an appropriate right-size standard and a deleterious lower standard?
The history of CTE charters offers a lesson that cuts both ways. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to make the right call, determining which option is in fact the less demanding path. And yes, mission matters. Sometimes different standards are appropriate. But the warning stands nevertheless—“Don’t you dare” still rings in my ears—and we ignore it at our peril.