Revolution of Rising Expectations: Youth at the National Youth Summit Raise their Voices

There are so many things I never asked you
There are so many things I still don’t know
There are so many things you never told me
And still so many things that I will never know
and why, cuz I went to City High (City High Anthem by City High)


After attending this weekend’s Voices in Action National Youth Summit at Howard University, I haven’t been able shake the 2001 “City High Anthem” lyrics.  Repeatedly throughout the event, I heard teens from 30 states call on our country’s schools to take them seriously and give them access to a quality education.

In a private conversation with Secretary Arne Duncan the day before the summit, ten teen leaders spoke passionately about the need for their voice in the educational discourse.  “I want future generations to have a better education than I do,” Stephanie told Arne.  Candace, a student member of the Alliance for Educational Justice, concurred.  “Education is a right,” she told the Secretary.  “Right now teachers are getting bored,” another explained, “so they can’t be creative and teach to their full potential.”

The emphasis of the February 26 summit was President Obama’s goal that by 2020, the country will once again lead the world in college completion.  Throughout the day this objective was emphasized, repeated, and even celebrated through speeches, discussions, and a rap video called “2020 Vision.”  But I couldn’t help but be disheartened by the number of times students testified about how their schools have let them down.

The complexity of their situation became especially clear to me during a “deep dive” breakout session for rural students, where 17 of 25 students placed themselves in a group whose counselors and teachers never talk to them about college.  Never. As a teacher who preaches from the college handbook on a daily basis, I was astounded.  How does this happen?  When I probed for answers from the students, one boy shrugged and said, “I guess they don’t think any of us are going.”  Sophia explained, “People see our (Kentucky) culture and they don’t see us.”

I think she’s right.  We have lowered expectation for many of our students.  As teachers, we nod to the idea that everyone can go to college, but in reality we don’t walk our talk.

Omari Scott Simmons, Associate Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law and the Executive Director of the Simmons Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting college access for vulnerable students makes this point in his Feb. 25 Huffington Post blog.   Simmons argues that low-income, minority, and first-generation students are less likely to go to college, but not for the reasons we think.  Usually we blame the gaps in their learning on the cost of college tuition, but the real culprit is a system made of counselors and teachers who don’t discuss college with these students.  They suffer from their school’s low expectations of them—expectations that students and this rally say they must fight against every day.

As Sophia told me, “We wanna prove them wrong.”

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina.


  1. Thank you Laurie for your heart-pumping entry. I LOVED the 20/20 Youtube clip. It kinda said it all, didn’t it? I am hoping and praying that the doors are opening and common sense education is returning to the nation. Our kids need to feel the fire in our schools, classrooms and projected by our teachers. Change is possible. Teachers are powerful Agents of Change. Your words just impacted my Sunday afternoon. With sleeves rolled up, I’m ready for Monday.

  2. Well, young Stephanie is correct in so many ways – teachers are bored and their hands are tied to be able to teach creatively. Now, why is that? Well, the name of the teenage brain game is to learn how to think creatively and critically. But as Stephanie also points out, teachers are unable to teach according to their full potential. The foremost attribute of the human brain is the ability to perform critical thinking, to exercise skills of hypothesis and to be intuitively creative. These are the skills that the teen brain is begging to acquire. So how can teachers teach teens to use their own intended potential – to devise ideas and think critically – when teachers skills and personal potential are deflated by the constant demands of micro-management. Constructive critical thinking and intuitive assessments of teens abilities on the parts of the teachers under the micro-management accountability system are two very incongruent processes that will only lead us down a more hopeless rendition of educational reform. Until we re-create an educational legacy to trust teachers’ abilities to teach creatively, to use critical thinking and intuitive reasoning – the predominant characteristics of the developing teen brain – then we are going to continue to disappoint our nation’s teens. “Expectations” must be equally viable both for students and teachers.
    But let’s go to the heart of the real issue: As the old saying goes – “if there’s a will, there’s a way”. But the “will” must be backed by desire. We kill the desire to learn in the early learning years. Adding to that is the unchallenged and completely accepted definition of “education, achievement and success” according to our socio-economic standards. If we are expecting economic strength and success to be our beacon of hope for educational achievement, then we only have to look at the present state of our economy to realize that we’d be better off with a new definition of “human potential”.
    If a baby’s first words were “show me the money”, then the associations between monetary access and academic achievement for a lifetime of career success – this association would be more profound than superficial in defining the true significance of “productive citizens of a society”.
    But the truth is that we need to redefine the meaning of success according to the real blueprint of human potential. We need to devise a definition that reflects the associations between early cognitive development/emotional intelligence development and early intuitive language acquisition in conjunction with the possibilities of real human potential. These characteristics can be implemented despite a lack or abundance of money. There is more than enough science to prove that the language syntaxes we use to teach are just as important to young brains as the “language syntaxes” that are used to program computers, yet we ignore the science when it comes to treating the potential of young brains – All that could possibly mean is that we care more about our computers than we do about our nation’s children -So what are we going to do about that? Let’s encourage teens to seek out the scientific evidence that would support the rights of their education based on their real potential. Because educational administrators are failing to deliver that.

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