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

Organizational Strategies

The way in which schools and classrooms are organized has an immediate impact on students' educational experience. One of the most obvious aspects of school organization, ability grouping or tracking, was discussed earlier in this review. Other aspects such as school size, departmentalization, and organized connections to the world beyond school are also important to consider. Below we examine alternatives to aspects of school organization that have been found to have a negative impact on the learning of students at risk.

Alternatives to large schools. Extensive research evidence indicates that a supportive climate for learning can be severely damaged by the very large secondary schools that are typical of major urban and suburban districts where many students at risk are enrolled (Toch, 1991; Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 1985; Bryk and Thum, 1989; Maeroff, 1992; Barker and Gump, 1964; Diprete, 1982; Garbarino, 1978, 1980; Morgan and Alwin, 1980). In contrast to small schools in which most teachers and students know each other and will recognize a problem when it arises, adult control and supervision and students' senses of belonging and responsibility are not developed as readily in large schools. For this reason, it is often argued that larger schools tend to have more discipline problems, lower percentages of students who actually participate in school clubs and activities, and more student feelings of estrangement and alienation.

There is no evidence that new, smaller schools are now being constructed for the middle and high school grades, but many smaller units are being created within larger schools. Some community school districts in New York City, for example, have developed schools-within-schools in which a single building may contain up to five smaller separate schools -- including elementary, junior high, special education, and special programs for troubled youth. The separate schools share the building's gym, labs, and studios; older students from one unit may tutor younger students from another unit. Other examples include the "house" system in Columbus, Ohio, in which groups of 250 high school students remain together in largely autonomous units for their high school careers, and self-contained "academic units" within Philadelphia high schools that have a special vocational-academic focus (Toch, 1991; Fine, 1992). While these programs are promising, Maeroff (1992) notes that opportunities for sustained, close, positive contacts between students and teachers will only be achieved if such arrangements are more than administrative units that change each year for particular students and have no programs of adult guidance and support for individual students.

Alternatives to departmentalization. Most American middle and high schools, and many elementary schools, are departmentalized -- students receive daily instruction from several different teachers because each teacher specializes in a single subject. This practice is nearly universal in high schools and almost as common in the middle grades; it is often reinforced by certification regulations that stipulate only specialized teachers may be used in the secondary grades. The rationale for such regulations is that the instructional content of each academic subject in the secondary grades requires teachers who are experts in the area, and that instruction will be of higher quality when teachers can take special pride in their subject-matter discipline and can concentrate on preparing a limited number of outstanding lessons each day that are offered to several different classes. Although research supports some of the instructional benefits of departmentalized staffing, the risks that many students will not encounter a climate of caring and support have been more strongly documented (McPartland, 1990; Bryk, Lee, and Smith, 1990).

Positive teacher-student relations are made more difficult by departmentalized staffing arrangements in the typical, large middle or high school for several reasons. The logistics of student-teacher contacts in the departmentalized school make it difficult to provide the individual attention or close relationships that many young adolescents need. A teacher who provides daily instruction to several different classes of students cannot get to know well the needs of each individual or to intervene with individualized programs for all who may need them. Students who change teachers for each period of the day will not relate to any of their teachers as strongly as when only one adult is in their classroom, as in earlier grades. Also, specialized teachers may adopt a different orientation toward their responsibility for student success. In the earlier grades, teachers are likely to adopt a "student-orientation" in which they take a broad view of the education of the "whole child" and assume a personal responsibility for the success of each individual in their class. On the other hand, teachers in the departmentalized setting of later grades are more likely to take on a "subject-matter orientation." These teachers may tend to have a professional identity with others in their field and may seek to maintain higher standards in their teaching and expectations for student performance that may detract from their feelings of personal responsibility for student success.

Recent research indicates two structural approaches may help to offset the negative effects of departmentalized staffing. The first is a form of "semi-departmentalization" in which the number of different specialized teachers assigned to each student in middle and secondary grades is limited. Analysis of national middle school data indicate that semi- departmentalization promotes a more positive teacher-student climate than fully departmentalized schools, but precautions may be needed to ensure that high quality instruction is still provided in each subject area (McPartland, 1990).

A second, and more common, way to offset the negative effects of departmentalized staffing is to implement interdisciplinary teacher teams that have specific team-member responsibilities for the success of each student. During regularly scheduled team planning periods, teachers can identify students who need special attention and follow through by providing extra academic help and coordinating problem-solving approaches with students and their families. Teams may be especially effective when combined with a teacher- advisory function in which every teacher is assigned a manageable number of students in the school as his or her particular responsibilities for advice and individual support. Evidence from national data on middle schools shows that interdisciplinary teacher teams in departmentalized schools usually contribute to more positive school climates (McPartland, 1991). Qualitative evidence also supports the potential advantages of interdisciplinary teams and adult-advisors to offset some of the threats to a more personalized, supportive climate in the departmentalized middle school (Robinson, 1991; Lipsitz, 1984; Merenbloom, 1986; Arhar, 1992; Alexander and George, 1981; Mac Iver, 1990; Maeroff, 1990; Connors, 1992).

Alternatives to tracking. As noted previously, a pervasive structural feature of American middle and secondary schools that often constitutes a major barrier to a positive school climate for disadvantaged students is "tracking" -- the separation of students into different schools, programs, courses, or classes based upon recent grades or test scores. Alternatives to tracking include various approaches to limit the use of separate classes for instruction and various methods to make the heterogeneously mixed class work well when tracking is eliminated. Tracking can be limited in several ways, including: regrouping in only one or two courses (such as math and reading) while keeping all others randomly mixed; assigning students to track levels on the basis of course-specific data (so that a high- track assignment in one subject and a low-track assignment in another subject can occur for the same student); restricting the number of different track levels in the same course (such as a gifted section and a broad general section); and assigning extra resources and the most talented teachers to classes with the most needy students (Braddock and McPartland, 1990).

Research has not determined whether any of these alternatives produces a more positive learning climate for students at risk. Research is more helpful in identifying methods to make the heterogeneously mixed class work well when tracking is not used. Simply eliminating tracking to equalize educational opportunities will produce classes of students with wide ranges of backgrounds and achievements in which special problems of student motivation, teacher effectiveness, and classroom climate must be addressed (Oakes, 1986; Braddock and McPartland, 1990). Student motivation can suffer when earning high grades is too easy for those at the top of the academic distribution and too difficult for those at the bottom. Teacher effectiveness can decline when classroom materials for a whole group lesson are poorly matched to the prior preparation of various students, such as reading matter that is geared to a single grade level when student reading skills range over several grade levels. The classroom climate can also be weakened in a heterogeneous class when discipline problems arise with students who feel they cannot perform acceptably on the assigned tasks.

Experiments to modify the structure of classroom competition indicate new directions for giving all students in heterogeneously grouped classes an opportunity to earn recognition and rewards for academic accomplishments. The basic idea is to establish individual benchmarks from which to calculate student growth, progress, and improvement for rewarding individual efforts at school work. Three studies in the late 1970s (Beady and Slavin 1980; Slavin, 1980) developed practical methods for calculating individual improvement points from regular teacher-constructed achievement tests in English and mathematics and demonstrated the motivational potential of frequent rewards to middle grade students on this basis. Mac Iver (1991) conducted a controlled experiment covering 54 classes in 4 inner-city middle schools that showed positive effects of an incentives-for- improvement approach on students' grades and on their self-reported levels of effort and intrinsic interest in the course (see the previous discussion on Alternative assessment). Besides increasing students' motivation to work hard at learning tasks, these approaches also improve teachers' expectations for students who are below average in current performance by providing the teacher with objective information that these students are capable of making significant progress in their classes. These approaches should not be misinterpreted as lowering standards or as giving away good grades to every student, because, in practice, recognition for individual progress is added to other information and does not replace existing grades in each subject based on absolute performance standards. Frequent recognition for meeting individually referenced short-term learning goals can provide powerful motivation for students in an evaluation system that also includes periodic information on other useful achievement standards (Beady et al., 1981).

Modifications of classroom curriculum materials and learning activities may also help teachers deal successfully with heterogeneous classrooms. There are only a few published examples of such efforts and no formal evaluations of how they work (Epstein and Salinas, 1992). The Civic Achievement Award Program (1989), for middle grades social studies, is a curriculum for U.S. history, geography, economics, and civics that contains lessons and classroom activities written at two reading levels (5/6 and 7/8). Individual students in a heterogeneous class can work on the same lessons from this program but at their appropriate reading levels. The Literature Project: Reading for Real (Epstein and Salinas, 1992), for middle grades reading and literature, contains carefully selected literature of high interest for early adolescents from different race-ethnic and gender groups in specified reading-level categories from grades 4 through 9. Similarly, new directions in mathematics instruction -- away from the scope-and-sequence approach requiring prerequisite knowledge toward a concept-based curriculum framework -- may permit more effective learning activities in heterogeneously grouped classes (Romberg, 1983; Oakes, 1986).

The most commonly used structure to deal with the diversity of students in heterogeneous classrooms, which can turn that diversity into an advantage, is cooperative learning. Cooperative learning methods include many approaches for heterogeneously grouped classrooms that create roles of high status and responsibility for each student in the class and that establish a positive peer climate for learning (Slavin, 1990; Cohen, 1986). Numerous evaluation studies have shown positive effects for both below- and above-average students on academic achievement and on student acceptance and respect of their peers who come from different backgrounds (Slavin, 1983). Other versions of cooperative learning assign roles to students that emphasize the special strengths or knowledge of each individual, to build status in the group and commitment to group learning goals (Cohen, 1986).

Closer connections with work or college. Schools can also institutionalize direct connections between success in school and the student's future educational and employment opportunities. In this vein, schools can (a) provide better information about student behaviors in school to employment agents and college admissions officers; (b) offer specific employment opportunities or college financial aid to students who meet particular school performance standards; and (c) include actual college and work experiences as part of middle and high school learning activities.

Employers who are hiring recent high school graduates have little information from schools on which to base their decisions (Crain, 1984), even though many aspects of school behavior are useful indicators that a job candidate is dependable, can work well as a team leader or member, or has other special job-related talents. Most students know that their high school record of attendance, grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities has little meaning in the employment process, so there is little incentive from the labor market to do well on these criteria (Bishop, 1987, 1989). New ways have been proposed for assembling records of academic and nonacademic accomplishments and for providing the information in a timely and convenient form in the job recruitment and selection process. Career Passport and Worklink are two examples of such initiatives.

Career Passport is "a formal program that assists youth in developing an employability credential that documents both work and nonwork experiences and the skills, attitudes, and knowledge gained through these experiences" (Charner, 1988, p. 36). The program has two components, the Student Workbook and the Leader's Guide. The former document contains instructions for students to record information in nine work-related areas such as work experiences, education and training, references, and volunteer and community experiences. The Leader's Guide provides detailed information to be used by an adult leader in guiding students in developing their passports (Charner, 1988). Results from an early evaluation (Charner, 1988, p. 37) indicate that the Passport has led employers (a) to become more aware of youth employment issues, (b) to report a reduction in their "previous work experience bias" in hiring, and (c) to express a belief that the Passport can help fill the gap in the job application process.

Worklink is a multifaceted information system in an early stage of development by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in collaboration with the National Urban League and the Human Resource Management Center of Tampa, Florida (Educational Testing Service, 1990a, b; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1990). The project will provide information on volunteering students' educational achievements, workplace-based assessments of skills such as reading and arithmetic, and work-related performances such as attendance and completion of tasks (Educational Testing Service, 1990b, p. 14).

Through Worklink, employers will have access to the computerized database in order to search for potential employees. The developers of the project plan for students to control their computerized files, which will permit students to determine the occupational fields and biographical information on which they are willing to be evaluated by potential employers. Students will be encouraged to compile their files at their own pace throughout their high school careers. Pilot work on Worklink began in Tampa in 1990. First evaluations of the project sites were planned for 1991-1992.

Many middle and high school students also see little connection between their school behavior and later opportunities for college. In this case the problem is more likely to be an absence of knowledge by students of college admissions processes than a need for better information by colleges about their student applicants. Students often do not know the required courses they need to take during the middle and high school grades to qualify for college admissions in major fields that can lead to a chosen career. Students in these grades may also discount entrance into many more selective colleges because they are unaware of available sources of financial aid. Such lack of knowledge prevents students from seeing the current relevance of working hard in challenging courses to earn admission to more selective colleges or to preferred major fields. Current programs such as Upward Bound provide knowledge on college prerequisites and the college admissions process to students at risk in their middle and high school years.

In operation since 1965, the national Upward Bound program provides academic and other kinds of assistance to economically disadvantaged, underachieving students who show potential for completing college. In 1990, Upward Bound received over $100 million to operate nearly 500 projects serving over 35,000 participants (U.S. Department of Education, 1991). Colleges and universities or secondary schools with residential facilities operate Upward Bound programs in cooperation with high schools and community action programs. Intervention strategies such as remedial instruction, immersion in new curricula, tutoring that often extends into the school year, cultural enrichment activities, and counseling are used to foster in students the academic competencies and motivation needed to complete a college or university program. The program involves summer sessions during which participating students reside in campus housing and undergo intensive training for a period of 6 weeks or longer. Participating colleges and universities attempt to establish academic and social relationships with the students and help them gain admission and financial aid for postsecondary education.

A review of the evaluations of the Upward Bound program in Natriello, McDill, and Pallas (1990), including the multiphase longitudinal study conducted by the Research Triangle Institute (Burkheimer et al., 1979), concludes that Upward Bound is successful in getting students to graduate from high school and enter college but that it does little to ensure that students who enter college will persist to attain a college degree. These findings were supported by the Applied Systems Institute Study in 1984, based on data in the High School and Beyond Survey, and on a report currently being prepared based on High School and Beyond and the 1972 National Longitudinal Survey of High School Students (U.S. Department of Education, 1991; Myers, in press). This lack of success in encouraging student persistence is attributed to too little time devoted to academic instruction during the program and no definite strategy for intervention once an Upward Bound student enters a postsecondary program. Upward Bound has placed more emphasis on the academic component of the program by instituting a new math and science program made up of 29 regional projects around the country (U.S. Department of Education, 1991). There also is a proposal to establish a required core academic curriculum for program participants. While programs like Upward Bound can help students see the links between school and college, middle and high schools themselves need to provide accurate information on college prerequisites and financial aid. Students with this early information are far more likely to see the relevance of their current school work for college-going goals and to eventually enroll in postsecondary education (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991).

In addition to increasing the flow of important, relevant information on jobs and continuing educational opportunities, schools can create direct links with employers. Developed by Public/Private Ventures, the Summer Training and Education Program (STEP) is a particularly well-implemented and unusually well-evaluated program designed to provide underachieving 14-15-year-olds from low-income families with extra help in academics, life skills, and work experience during two consecutive summers. Students also are provided with ongoing support during the intervening school year. During the summer, students are paid a full-time minimum wage for 6 to 8 weeks as they participate in the program. They spend approximately half the time in individual and group instruction in basic reading and math skills and 40 percent in part-time work provided by the federally funded Summer Youth Employment and Training Program (SYETP). The remaining 10 percent is devoted to instruction in responsible social and sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Evaluations of STEP include random assignment of students to treatment and control groups, with members of the control groups working full time on SYETP jobs but not participating in STEP activities. Successive evaluations conducted by Branch, Milliner, and Bumbaugh (1986) and by Sipe, Grossman, and Milliner (1987, 1988) indicate positive effects, with the program improving over time. Students in initial cohorts simply showed less loss of academic skills over the summer than control students, while later cohorts either showed no loss or actual gains in reading and math. Modest positive effects on the likelihood of promotion and on dropout rate reduction (among Hispanic students) also were found.

The well-documented success of the STEP program drew the attention of policymakers and practitioners, resulting in the expansion of the program from 5 initial demonstration sites to more than 100 sites in 15 states. In their recent comprehensive evaluation of STEP, Walker and Vilella-Vilez (1992) summarize the program's short- and long-term effects in both the pilot and replication sites. Overall results show consistently positive effects on STEP students' reading and math test scores and awareness of socially responsible behaviors as compared to control group students.

These results, however, often did not translate into higher performance during the school year and did not persist once the students left the STEP program after the second summer, as indicated by 3- and 4-year follow-up interviews. The program demonstrates that it is possible to improve academic and life skills of students at risk through intensive, controlled, relatively short-term interventions. Lasting gains in the school or work lives of program participants seem not to occur, however, due to the lack of a "vehicle to reinforce and continue STEP's positive impacts" once the students leave the program (Walker and Vilella-Vilez, 1992, p. iii).

Other strategies and programs also create links between school and employment and college aid. Agreements between local businesses and school systems can guarantee students job interviews, actual employment, or direct assistance in applying and paying for college, in return for maintaining good high school attendance rates and grade point averages. Examples include the Boston Compact, the Baltimore Commonwealth and Collegebound Foundation, and the Cleveland Collegebound Foundation. But these efforts have been criticized as being ineffective because the guaranteed rewards are too distant to affect student behavior and the criteria are too inflexible to appeal to those students who most need added incentives to improve school behaviors (Gottfredson, 1988).

We have little rigorous evaluation evidence of the effects of various strategies for providing better information to students or for offering college or employment rewards for good school behavior (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1990a; Betsey et al., 1985). The following suggestion appears valid: More effective programs will require a comprehensive approach that begins in the middle grades. This approach would combine more information to the student with personalized guidance services on college and career opportunities and requirements (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1990b) and an incentive program. The incentive program would offer immediate payoffs such as contributions to students' college savings accounts or actual chances for paid employment that are tied to short-term school records and incremental improvements in individual student behaviors in school (Gottfredson, 1988; Natriello, McDill, and Pallas, 1990).

Learning activities in middle and high school can be directly connected to the worlds of college or work so that the transition between different domains becomes a gradual experience, rather than school being merely a preparation for the college and career events that follow high school graduation. Current examples include tech-prep offerings that permit high school students to take part of their program at the local community college, cooperative education programs that coordinate learning experiences at the workplace with learning activities in the classroom, school-to-work apprenticeship programs, community college co- op programs, and high school programs to integrate academic and vocational offerings with experiential learning activities (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991; Hoyt, 1991; Hamilton, 1990). These reform efforts are still in the early stages of development but show real promise for convincing students of the relevance of their school work for achieving college and career goals by directly linking their middle and high school learning activities to college and worksite locations and experiences.

[Changes in Assessment] [Table of Contents] [Organizational Strategies (Continued)]