How Education Reform Suffers from the Soft Bigotry of Good Intentions

I remember being cautiously optimistic when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2001. I was an undergraduate in a teacher education program and saw this legislation as offering the possibility of improving the education of the emergent bilingual students that I aspired to work with after graduating.

Specifically, I found myself nodding when George W. Bush discussed the soft bigotry of low expectations.” I had read the research on the importance of high expectations and had already seen the ways that emergent bilinguals were often excluded from classroom activities. I thought it was great that teachers would now have to give these students the same attention that they give all of their students. 

When I became a classroom teacher I quickly discovered that NCLB suffered from its own bigotry–the soft bigotry of good intentions. What is the soft bigotry of good intentions? It is saying nice things and demanding equality for all while doing little to actually make these nice things into a reality. Though claiming to support equality the soft bigotry of good intentions actually increases inequality.

In the case of NCLB the good intentions are to have high expectations for all students. The soft bigotry is doing little to support schools in meeting this challenge. The increase in inequality is providing schools an incentive not to serve populations such as emergent bilinguals who require more support in meeting high expectations.

Allow me to illustrate this with a true story. When I was a high school ESL teacher, the principal called me into the office one day. When I entered there were two students and their father. The principal explained to me that the students had just arrived from the Dominican Republic and had been assigned to our school. They knew little English and were juniors in high school in their home country.

The family explained to us that they had visited the enrollment office several times and had previously been assigned to four other schools. They went to each of these schools to register and were turned away. Each time they were told  that there was no room at the school and that the school did not have the services to meet their needs.

The principal then asked to speak to me alone.He explained to me that he was also hesitant to accept them.  The fact that they were juniors in high school meant that they would be counted as part of our junior cohort data. This meant that we had two years to help these students pass all of their exit exams and get the necessary credits for graduation. A failure to do so would damage our cohort data and possibly lead to sanctions for our school.

It was at this moment that the perverse incentives of the soft bigotry of good intentions became apparent to me. It became apparent to me that NCLB–a policy that claims to advocate for all children–has created an incentive system that makes the most vulnerable students a liability to schools. A policy that claims to leave no child behind has created a system where some students are not wanted at all. Even worse, the schools that do serve these students are penalized for not increasing their test scores when they receive little, if any, support in helping these students reach the high expectations NCLB purports to have for them.

Unfortunately things have not changed with Race to the Top (RTT) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As I mentioned in a previous post the CCSS have little to nothing to say about issues of bilingualism and the needs of emergent bilinguals. Instead, the standards were created with the same good intentions of combating the soft bigotry of low expectations by providing all students “college and career ready” skills and ensuring that all students were engaging with “grade level texts.”

But that is where they end. There has been little thought as to how this looks in practice. There has been even less thought into how teachers and schools will receive supports to make this happen. Teachers, schools, and communities who raise objections are then accused of engaging in the soft bigotry of low expectations. But it is about time we speak back to these accusations and call it out for what it is–the soft bigotry of good intentions.

Let me be clear, it is important for all students–including emergent bilinguals–to receive high expectations. But it can’t just be  rhetorical device or an excuse to scapegoat teachers, schools, and communities for systemic problems. It is not enough to hide under the banner of high expectations and accuse others of bigotry when they raise legitimate questions about how this should look or demand support in meeting this challenge. It is not enough to include emergent bilinguals as a subgroup and then close your eyes when this leads to their exclusion from some schools and the unfair punishment of other schools.

In case you were wondering, my principal had a big heart and accepted the two students into our school. But it shouldn’t require a big heart and an act of martyrdom to give recently arrived emergent bilinguals the education that they are entitled too. Instead, it is time to move beyond the soft bigotry of good intentions and begin the hard work of developing structures to ensure that teachers, school, and communities receive the necessary supports to truly provide an equitable education for all students.


2 thoughts on “How Education Reform Suffers from the Soft Bigotry of Good Intentions

  1. This is a common issue among policy makers in general. Often policies are introduced with little to no “how to” factored in, leading to lack of support and increased difficulty for the professionals that these policies are supposed to help. I enjoyed this read, and sympathize with your frustration.


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