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

Current Tensions

Tracking, retention, special education, and Chapter 1 programs are primary ways in which schools have attempted to respond to diversity and the needs of underachieving students. The general theory underlying each of these strategies is that they accommodate student diversity and support increased learning by matching instructional contents to students' knowledge levels, thus providing learning environments best suited to individual students' learning needs. In practice, however, research evidence shows that these strategies may do more to limit than increase learning opportunities and overall achievement of students at risk. Lower track and retained students and students with only mild academic handicaps are all likely to experience learning environments that not only carry a stigma, which may negatively affect their self-concept as learners, but that also may be less stimulating and less likely to provide them with opportunities to develop higher order thinking and problem- solving skills. However, such approaches are widespread and, more often than not, uncritically applied.

In our review of current and emerging strategies, we find tensions emerging from the knowledge base of nearly 30 years of practice -- tensions that question traditional responses and indicate a shift away from the deficit model that has guided compensatory education. For example, the practice of remediation is being challenged by a powerful policy of prevention in early childhood. Remedial or special education programs that have focused on improving basic skills are now encouraged to emphasize higher order thinking and problem- solving skills. Acknowledging that students must be engaged in the culture of the school as well as challenged academically, an emerging emphasis on mainstreaming and whole-school restructuring is calling into question the often-used approach of pulling children out of their regular programs for special instruction. Finally, in response to increasingly diverse student populations, many educators are calling for less emphasis on compensating for what poor children and children of color lack, and greater emphasis on pedagogical techniques that make use of the students' strengths and sociocultural experiences as stepping stones for further learning.

While these emerging strategies challenge traditional assumptions about educating impoverished students, they do not go uncriticized. Too great an emphasis on early childhood prevention can lead to an overidentification of "problem" students. It also can direct resources away from programs in later grades that are necessary to ensure that children's academic gains do not "fade out" as they progress through school. There also are practical questions as reforms are phased in at one level of the education system but not in another. Similarly, though higher order thinking skills may be at a premium in the workplace, state competency tests continue to emphasize mastery of basic skills; teachers are still reinforced to teach to the test. Finally, whole-school restructuring strategies may pull resources away from the neediest students. While doing away with the deficit model may have positive effects on students' cognitive and emotional development, alternative approaches must not fail to acknowledge the very real disadvantages that may impair many students' learning.

Compensatory education is no monolith. The 1980s have seen the maintenance of traditional approaches combined with new approaches that may subvert the meaning behind the term "compensatory" itself. The strategies and programs outlined in the following review reflect some of these tensions. While there is much that is promising, there is also a dearth of well-designed studies to assess the effectiveness of many of these programs. Only a commitment to rigorous evaluation of the effects of these various strategies will provide the evidence necessary to determine what, in practice, does and does not work.

[Chapter 7: Compensatory Education: Traditional Responses and Current Tensions] [Table of Contents] [Chapter 8: Emerging Strategies]