The Soft Bigotry of Charter Schools: How Low Expectations for Leadership at Charter Schools Limit Students

Article by  guest contributor and friend of WFTF:

“SIT DOWN!” I yelled at Justin. “You need to learn to follow directions. How can you expect to be successful if you can’t sit down and do what I tell you? Leaders follow directions and listen to their teachers.” As I heard myself repeating what other teachers have said to chastise misbehaving students, I realized I didn’t recognize myself. Since when did I believe that listening to your teacher was a major prerequisite for leadership? That was when I realized the bigotry I had been imposing upon my students. That was when I realized that they were caught up in an educational system that held them to low expectations for leadership.

Since beginning my journey as a new teacher at a charter school, I have encountered the idea of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in the context of education numerous times. The idea is that if we hold our children to low academic expectations, whether or not we are consciously prejudicial, we cannot set them up for success in a world where they are already denied various privileges because of their ascriptions.

“We have high expectations for our kids” is what I have heard almost every day since I began working there. While the academic curriculum is rigorous, especially when compared to that of nearby district schools, expectations beyond that are low. At most charter schools, students are consistently praised for being able to follow directions; students who are able to do exactly what the teacher commands or wants as they sit up straight with their hands folded are the ones who are called “leaders.” Kids who deviate, even a little bit from minor directions like following the speaker with their eyes, are publicly chastised. This leaves many students, regardless of academic achievement, feeling constantly frustrated.

When we juxtapose the charter school experience to the independent school one, we see that charter schools place a stronger emphasis on the ability of students to follow directions of little importance like folding their hands. Independent schools, however, have an unspoken expectation of compliance. Instead of focusing on student compliance, the emphasis is placed on leadership and independence; students are expected to set and accomplish goals on their own and are praised for taking on tasks, projects, and leadership positions on and off campus. They are encouraged to raise awareness when they see their community is lacking something and to fill that void. Students at independent schools are provided with the space to be leaders while those at charter schools are limited to following simple directions. These directions are what charter school leaders call “structure.”

Another saying from various administrators at my charter school is “A lot of our students come from backgrounds where there isn’t much structure, so they need the structure we give them. They appreciate it, even if they don’t show it.” Agreed, children need structure. At a certain point, however, they need the independence to develop their character and grow as leaders. This is the type of independence that helps students at elite schools like Exeter thrive. We cannot use student’s backgrounds as an excuse to hold them to low expectations. After all, isn’t that part of the reason why the achievement gap exists in the first place?

Many would argue that independent schools have more room to prioritize leadership and independence than charter schools because they are selective and look to admit students without behavioral issues. Most charter schools, on the other hand, operate admissions through a lottery system and do not deny any admitted child. While this point holds validity, students at charter schools should not be denied the opportunity to develop their independence and character as leaders. When students enter college, there will be no strong structure in place for them and they will have to manage their academic and personal lives independently. Yes, they need structure as children, but there should be a more delicate balance struck between structure and independence, discipline and leadership. Our children deserve that, regardless of their race or socio-economic status.


Charter schools that operate with low expectations for leadership cannot rightfully say that they are the crusaders of the modern-day civil rights movement, especially while they are inadvertently limiting the leadership potential within their students. These low expectations produce low outcomes. These low expectations are bigotry. While high academic standards and structure in urban schools are crucial, the structure can only be morally sound if it is coupled with systems that develop our students’ character and leadership potential. We cannot develop our children as the movers and shakers who lead our world to change if we train them to be meek and docile, whether or not we are providing them with an excellent academic education. A truly excellent education develops the mind and the character simultaneously. While there is value in following directions, it is more important that we provide our students with the tools necessary for shaping the direction of their lives and our communities. How can we do that if our greatest expectation for children like Justin is that they sit up straight with their hands folded until they get to college?


By: Misseducation (Guest Contributor),  age 22

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3 Responses to “The Soft Bigotry of Charter Schools: How Low Expectations for Leadership at Charter Schools Limit Students”

  1. Chicago moving company long distance April 22, 2013 at 5:41 PM # Reply

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you
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  2. minameanz April 30, 2013 at 9:25 AM # Reply

    I agree! How can we expect students to thrive as leaders and critical thinkers if they are only applauded for silence and conformity.

    I’m not saying that silence and conformity are always a bad thing- a class room environment can easily become chaotic if students do not have respect for their teachers and their classmates.However, I have often witnessed the phrase “promoting structure” used as code for “controlling these wild, poorly raised, disrespectful black/hispanic kids.”

    The generalizations about the home life of black and brown children and their behavior that underlie these sentiments are dangerous; They can lead us to view the creativity of students of color as evidence of their inability to control themselves, rather than as their ability to be innovative and active learners.


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