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

Dimension Priorities

We believe all four dimensions of reform should be addressed in any school district program to reduce the school dropout rate and the earlier incidents of early school failure that lead to dropping out. Because students of different ages will have different motivational priorities, however, some dimensions are more important than others at each stage of development, and the specific ways each dimension can be most effectively addressed will differ by grade level.

The first dimension, opportunities for academic success, is basic to student motivation at every age because all learners need to believe that when they try hard at appropriate learning activities they will experience positive results. Providing effective extra help when it is needed is especially important in the early grades to ensure that a firm foundation of basic skills and self-confidence as a learner are established. Exemplary programs for the early grades described earlier, such as Reading Recovery and Success for All, use well- trained adult tutors to deliver individualized, intensive assistance to students. In contrast, the middle and high school grades are more likely to schedule extra academic assistance during the summer months for helping students who are behind or failing to catch up, or to use peer tutors and technologies to provide additional instruction during the regular school year. These examples reflect strategies that seek to control the costs of providing extra help -- using student peers as an inexpensive source of individualized assistance for older students or investing in technology to lower the cost of individualized help from paid professionals.

The evaluation evidence supporting the effectiveness of the usual methods for providing extra academic help in middle and high school grades is not as strong as evidence on the best early and elementary approaches. We believe much more needs to be done in the middle and high school grades not only to provide adequate compensatory education resources but also to develop effective delivery systems for extra help that fit into the regular school day. We need to replace the typical current organizational devices for dealing with student academic diversity in middle and high school grades -- tracking, grade retention, and special education placement -- with a common curriculum of uniform high standards that each student can master because effective extra help is provided when needed. Innovative ways are needed to schedule and combine human resources (professional, paraprofessionals, adult volunteers, and peer tutors) with technological resources (various media, computers and other interactive devices). These new approaches must be scientifically evaluated to provide clear knowledge of effectiveness, so that we are not left to rely on the testimony of inventors or marketers, as is so often now the case.

In addition to providing consistent and ongoing extra academic help, we must revise the antiquated evaluation and grading system that recognizes only a narrow mode of learning and that requires students to achieve more than others in their class to earn praise and top grades. Students who work hard and make significant progress on appropriate learning tasks should be able to easily demonstrate what they have learned and be rewarded for their efforts and improvement. Current systems provide some useful information but need to be supplemented with new assessment procedures and grading methods that have more motivational utility.

The second dimension, relevance of learning activities, also may require somewhat different approaches at different ages. Providing classroom learning activities that are inherently interesting and challenging is important at every grade level, but the nation's schools are still at an early stage in replacing the current passive and boring content that is driven by multiple-choice tests. Likewise, providing examples and models of students' own sex-race-ethnic backgrounds and community experiences is also a worthwhile goal throughout the curriculum at every grade level. Students at every age will be better motivated by learning materials with which they can personally identify and that use the experiences and resources of their own communities, but work is still needed to develop instructional materials and experiential learning activities to meet these goals.

Relevance of schoolwork for later college and career goals becomes a major issue for the first time in the middle and high school grades. Students need to understand college opportunities and requirements as early as middle school so they will aspire to college and enroll in the demanding courses during middle and high school that are prerequisites for many college major fields. Students in these grades also need to see how their current studies will be useful in adult life, especially in the jobs they might seek after graduation. We described a variety of approaches for schools to make the connection between middle or high school learning activities and adult roles and careers.

The third dimension, a climate of caring and support, is most problematic at the middle and high school grades, in which school size, tracking, and departmentalized staffing emerge as serious barriers to positive teacher-student relations. The middle schools are often more attuned to these problems than high schools for two reasons: the middle school movement focuses on the needs of young adolescent learners for personalized support from school adults, and middle grade teachers often are drawn from the elementary schools where they have developed a strong student orientation. But even in middle schools, recommendations to create positive climates -- for example, through well-functioning interdisciplinary teams and homeroom, core teacher-advisors -- are not often implemented. At the high school level, there is substantial debate among professional educators over the particular shape reform should take. Some ideas of individual reformers, such as Sizer's Coalition for Essential Schools' principles for developing new teacher and student roles and relationships, have been highly publicized and piloted across the country, but have yet to be rigorously evaluated.

The final dimension, help with students' personal problems, should be considered differently across the grades because students of different ages encounter serious problems of very different sorts. In the early grades, family support teams can help remove barriers to learning at home or in the neighborhood. In later grades, professional assistance with drug abuse, teenage parenthood, and mental health problems can help neutralize serious distractions to a young person's concentration on his or her student role and responsibilities.

One major mechanism now used for delivering extra service to students, however, should be carefully reexamined and modified. We believe major reforms are needed in special education referrals, which presently are used in the elementary and middle grades as a major approach for dealing with students who have serious learning or discipline problems. Although well-run, separate special education classes with expert staff and carefully designed curricula are needed for children with severe physical or mental handicaps, such as extreme sight or hearing impairments or mental retardation, the largest and fastest growing category of special education placements are learning disabled (LD) students, who usually are the lowest of the low achievers with no distinctive characteristics of birth defects or biological damage (Deshler et al, 1982). The only other category that has increased in recent years is that for the "emotionally disturbed." These are students who create discipline problems in the classroom, which may be due more to poor prior socialization experiences than to biological factors. No doubt most students in these growing categories need significant extra help with their academic preparation or with their behavioral coping skills, but special education placement is very costly and may have dramatic, negative consequences for the remainder of an individual's education. Special education is expensive because of the high costs of testing that precedes placement and the high costs of smaller classes and specially trained teachers.

Special education is the most severe form of permanent tracking into segregated programs that have (1) much less demanding curricula and (2) lower expectations, due to the labeling of students as handicapped, disabled, or retarded. Because of the costs and consequences, special education placement should be a last resort to provide extra services to most students who have learning or discipline problems. We need to modify compensatory education programs and procedures to deliver effective assistance to these children without segregating and labeling them for the rest of their school careers.

[Timing of Compensatory Resources] [Table of Contents] [Targeting or Restructuring]