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FiredUp: Are low expectations haunting rural schools?
My daughter coming home from her first day of school. "It was fun," she said. Photo by Heidi Marttila-Losure

FiredUp: Are low expectations haunting rural schools?

My daughter coming home from her first day of school. “It was fun,” she said. Photo by Heidi Marttila-Losure


By Heidi Marttila-Losure, editor


The Daily Yonder had a great essay by Timothy Collins today. Here’s a portion of it:

A lot of people have occasional nightmares about bad school experiences. I’ve had my share.

Deep in the haze of restless sleep, I sense that the guidance counselor means well, greeting the soon-to-be-ninth-graders with kind words. But the real message? “We have low expectations here.” It throbs in my brain.

The shortest discussion? College prep. “But only a few of you can make it there. It’s hard.” A screaming Greek-style chorus: “We have low expectations here.”

The next discussion? Trades and agriculture, all well and good, but the sweet voice consoles the parents and their children: “Maybe these courses are too hard for you. They take a lot of time.” Terrifying. “We have low expectations here” is turning into a ghastly, off-key melody that hammers at my skull – from both sides.

The longest discussion? Basic requirements, just get that diploma. Am I witnessing a downward spiral to the darkest depths of a truly common denominator? The message echoes: “Now, those other courses are really difficult, so if you don’t want to work that hard, there’s an easier way. This is it.”

Alluring words, these. Somewhere beyond the edges of my dream state I hear some students screaming and burbling as the syrupy kindness trills and drowns their young spirits. The melody triggers an explosion of dank smoke as the refrain fades and rises again: “We have low expectations here.”

Could the nightmare get any worse? Oh yes: “Now, you have to get a high school diploma. If you get the basic one, then you can get a job at one of the two fast food restaurants in town. And if you do a good job, you can work your way up to manager.”

I struggle to awaken, but evil forces hold me down, chanting: “Low skills. Low wages. Ho-ho!”

… The worst interpretation of these dreams? Low expectations suggest that rural communities don’t value their children or have lost sight of the future. Even if unintentional, low expectations are insidious and corrosive. They do not encourage children of different abilities to do their best, no matter what. They limit opportunities for children to explore their world, to believe in the possibilities of education now and the doors it can open when they become adults.

Be sure to read the whole essay—it’s nicely done, with spooky illustrations and all.

Are low expectations haunting the halls of rural Dakota high schools? I’d say yes, in some ways. I remember some of the conversations that haunted Collins’ dreams. Many of the general conversations to my classmates were focused on just getting us through school. Maybe just because for school officials, getting students to graduate is the bar they have to jump—anything more than that they don’t get much credit for.

But I think there’s also a decidedly mixed message coming out of our rural schools, and it may well be because we in rural places have convinced ourselves that success can’t happen here. And so, if we want them to be successful, we assume they will leave—off to the Coasts if they are brave, or to Sioux Falls or Minneapolis if they still want to get home for holidays.

If we want our young people to stick around, we’ll just prepare them for the “opportunities” in rural places that we see: Service work, or manufacturing, or maybe clean work in an office. We are not preparing them to think about the opportunities in rural places that we can’t yet see—because these young people would need to create those opportunities for themselves.

This is why so many forward-thinking communities are now talking about entrepreneurship education, so that we can help our young people think about ways they can be successful and stay in our communities. And it’s not just about “starting your own business,” though that’s one way to think of it. It can also be working part-time in a job you don’t particularly love, so you can also spend some of your time doing what you absolutely do love. Or maybe you need to leave for a few years to work elsewhere to gain the experience you need to start your own business. Or it might mean working for a company elsewhere, but telecommuting so you can live where you want to live.

Being successful can have so many definitions: It can mean traveling the world, yes, or being a corporate bigwig. But it can also mean crafting a life that’s meaningful in a place where you belong. A good life path can travel through high school, or trade school, or college, or grad school. Or, for some self-directed people, it can mean none of these.

I will tell you that one of the most meaningful experiences in my high school education was when my high school guidance counselor (Side note: because of budget cuts, my old high school no longer has one. A pity) told me that I was talented enough to do whatever I wanted in life. And I believed that he meant it. It was like a key to me, unlocking doors, and helping me believe I could get past obstacles. It gave me permission to go out in the world and pursue success, however I defined it.

That, I think, would be the best thing we could wish for our rural students: That they all receive the message that they have permission to pursue success on their own terms. Wherever that path leads them—even if it circles back to the place we call home.


What do you think? Are low expectations a problem at your local school? If so, what can we do to improve the situation? Share your ideas at!

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