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

Chapter 9: Strategic Issues

The discussion in the previous chapter provides only a sampling of the many and varied strategies and programs aimed at poor children and children of color. These programs can have a positive impact on the lives of many children and, when they are well evaluated, can also generate important information about what does and does not work. It is possible for schools and school systems to be more effective by adopting these programs and adapting them to meet the needs of their underachieving students. However, as noted earlier, positive effects often "fade out" when students leave a program, and many programs address only one aspect of a student's difficulties with little attention given to the complex web of social forces that influence a student's opportunities and motivation to learn (see Section I). If schools are interested in producing deep and lasting positive effects for students at risk, they must develop a comprehensive reform strategy that confronts these issues head-on. In this concluding section, we set forth four dimensions of such a comprehensive reform strategy: academic success, relevance, positive relationships within school, and supportive conditions beyond school.

Four Dimensions of a Comprehensive Reform Strategy

Academic success. One of the strongest correlates of students' psychological and physical disengagement from school is lack of academic success (Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack & Rock, 1986; McDill, Natriello, & Pallas, 1985, 1986; Wagenaar, 1987). Students at risk need to have their efforts at school work recognized and rewarded. The rewards most frequently offered to students to motivate them to do good school work are high marks, praise from teachers and family members, and respect from peers for meeting challenging classroom assignments. However, students at risk may have poor prior preparation, weak support at home for academic tasks, and negative peer pressures that deprive them of sufficient opportunities to achieve immediate rewards for schoolwork. Students also may be placed at risk by attending schools that lack the resources and standards needed to prepare them for college and/or workplace success.

Relevance. A second major cause of poor school performance, early school leaving, and rebellious behavior is that the school program is not relevant to students' current and longer term social and economic interests. Learning activities should be intrinsically rewarding to students -- interesting, challenging, and providing opportunities for initiative and creative effort. However, substantial evidence indicates that a sizable segment of students view much school work to be dull, passive, and unimportant. Several critics of the schooling of poor children and children of color assert that these students are deprived of academically stimulating and interesting subject-matter because they are often placed in lower tracks or remedial courses that concentrate on repetitive drill and practice (Oakes, 1989, 1992; Gamoran and Berends, 1987).

Positive relationships within school. Students need to feel attached to school as a supportive community that recognizes their individuality and that cares about and promotes their success. The need for positive, supportive relationships between students and teachers and a climate of common purpose and caring are emphasized in several studies of effective schools for poor children and children of color (Bidwell, 1987; Coleman, 1987; Bryk and Driscoll, 1988; Lightfoot, 1978; Lipsitz, 1984; Wehlage et al., 1989; Young, 1990). Climate is a key concept in recent models for secondary school improvement (Coalition for Essential Schools, 1985).

Supportive conditions beyond school. Students do not leave their personal and family problems at the school door. Such problems as gang membership, drug or family abuse, and teenage pregnancy can be substantial barriers to academic success and prosocial development. While some may argue that schools have a primarily academic function and that they can do little about a student's personal problems, the reality is that many students will not reach even basic academic performance standards unless these other problems are ameliorated.

It is easy to see how many of the strategies and programs discussed in the previous section can be understood in terms of one or several of these dimensions. Multicultural education, for example, can make school more relevant, mentoring and integrated services can help provide more supportive conditions for learning in the beyond-school environment, and peer tutoring can create a more cooperative school climate and improve academic success. Planning a comprehensive reform strategy, however, means stepping back from the level of specific programs and strategies and giving serious consideration to the overall goals and framework of such efforts. Informed by research and practice, we present these four dimensions of educational programs as a conceptual framework that articulates the general areas into which resources must be directed. Some strategy issues in carrying out work along the four dimensions, some strengths and weaknesses of the categories as presently described, and some additional implications of recent national education policy directions are discussed below.

In adopting a comprehensive strategy to reduce the risks of school failure, a school system needs to consider the following issues:

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