A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

SECTION II: Rising to the Challenge: Emerging Strategies for Educating Students At Risk


Nettie Legters, Edward McDill, and James McPartland
Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students
Johns Hopkins University

Chapter 6: The Challenge

What can be done to effectively engage and educate students who are at risk of low achievement, failure, and, eventually, of dropping out of school? What can be done for students who perform reasonably well, but whose educational programs provide them with substandard or limited educational opportunities and experiences, leaving them at a disadvantage as they move on to college or work? These questions have been a central concern of many educators over the past three decades and have given rise to a vast number of strategies and programs designed to (1) provide extra help to chronic underachievers and (2) equalize distribution of educational resources and opportunities. Large federal programs initiated during the 1960s as part of the Johnson administration's "Great Society," such as Headstart, Title 1 (now Chapter 1), and Upward Bound, are just a few extant examples of what has become an extensive and complex maze of efforts.

In this section, we examine a sampling of strategies and programs that, taken together, outline the terrain of both traditional and emerging responses to the challenge of educating poor children and children of color. We begin by looking at ways in which schools traditionally have addressed academic and socioeconomic student diversity, focusing on tracking, retention, and special education; and we explore the controversies surrounding each of these approaches. After outlining some of the tensions that have developed out of thirty years of research and practice, we then turn to an overview of current and emerging strategies and programs that appear to hold particular promise for educating students at risk.

In our examination of strategies and programs, we have consistently observed two troubling, if not new, phenomena. The first is commonly known as the "fade-out" effect. Too often students participate in a particular program and make significant academic and/or behavioral improvements, only to have these gains drop off when they are promoted out of the program or move to another school. The second observation is that individual programs often address only one source of a student's difficulties, by providing extra help in reading or involving the student in a mentoring program, for example. Such programs may have positive benefits that extend beyond their stated purposes: academic programs may increase self-esteem, while nonacademic mentoring programs may motivate a student to improve his or her academic work. Few programs, however, explicitly address the student as a whole person with a variety of complex needs and experiences, all of which have some impact, positive or negative, on her or his ability to learn.

Each of these themes points to the need for integrated strategies that address all aspects of students' academic and social development. In our conclusion, we review four key dimensions of any serious integrated strategy geared toward students at risk: academic success, relevance of schoolwork to current interests and the future, positive relationships within school, and supportive conditions beyond school.

This discussion should be useful to policymakers and practitioners who must consider such practical questions of priorities, the timing of resource allocations, and the costs and benefits of what appear to be opposing strategies, such as targeting resources versus whole- school/district restructuring. Whether it is called reform or restructuring, change in schools must be informed by lessons from practice. Moving through the maze of programs and strategies to determine what works, where and for whom, is only the starting point, however. The challenge to all researchers, policymakers, and practitioners is to develop innovative, creative, and self-reflective strategies that stimulate all students to learn, while ensuring that the specific needs of students at highest risk are not lost in the fray. No single strategy will provide the solution to all our education ills. Indeed, there are multiple paths to success, many of which remain to be discovered, that can be forged only in practice -- ongoing, tough, context-specific, and informed practice.

[An Alternative Model of Student Performance] [Table of Contents] [Chapter 7: Compensatory Education: Traditional Responses and Current Tensions]