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


Historically, separate and unequal schooling has limited the educational opportunities of poor children and children of color. In addition, these children sometimes have problems outside school that interfere with learning. Hunger, poor health, high mobility, homelessness, violence -- these are just a few of the problems that many young people face in impoverished urban and rural areas.

They also must confront a less tangible threat -- the devaluation of their talents and potential. They are labeled "problem children" or the "special needs population," implying they are somehow intrinsically less intelligent, more needy. But sufficient food, shelter, health care, and schooling are basic, not "special" needs, and cultural differences become a problem only when we fail to address diversity honestly and fairly.

Poor children and children of color are not the only students at risk. Perhaps more than at any other time in the nation's history, schools are being asked to recognize and address the needs of children who suffer from emotional problems, abuse, or neglect. Schools are also increasingly aware that low social status may depress student performance regardless of family income: Recent studies, for example, describe the ways in which girls may be discouraged from pursuing male-dominated professions. And the media seems to remind us daily that academic mediocrity may place all U.S. students at risk of being unable to compete in global markets.

In this review, we have concentrated on efforts to improve the schools and environment of poor children and children of color. Many of the reforms targeted at this population may suggest ways of making schools more effective for all students and improving society as a whole. In Section I, we have integrated research on students at risk into a conceptual framework for addressing the societal, home, and school-related factors that influence academic success. High academic achievement and success in adult life is most likely when children receive resources, incentives, and a "push" to excel from the multiple social systems that they participate in.

In Section II, we look at specific strategies to improve the school environment and to develop supportive networks for children with individuals and groups outside schools. Since the 1960s, the compensatory education movement has generated various programs to help schools better serve "disadvantaged" students. We have considered a sample of these efforts, drawing attention to their strong and weak points. We have noted the consistent paucity of well-designed evaluations and encourage program developers to incorporate a scientific evaluation plan from the outset. We also have introduced what, in our view, are four critical dimensions of a comprehensive school reform effort: academic success, relevance, positive relations within school, and supportive conditions beyond school. We have set forth the integration of these four dimensions in a comprehensive program geared toward better educating students and achieving academic success with high reliability -- a goal yet to be attained in the current drive for school reform.

In Section III, we have argued that, to achieve this goal, schools must engage in contextually sensitive organizational development, which includes maintaining standard procedures, fostering staff development, improving communication, providing high quality instructional materials, and establishing monitoring procedures. Most importantly, those involved in school reform must aim for excellence for all students. In the past, our school systems tolerated a level of academic failure that is incompatible with current economic and social objectives. School systems that foster high levels of academic success may be more expensive than those that tolerate academic mediocrity, but in the long run providing high quality schools for all will be less costly than dealing with the effects of educational failure.

[Implications for Schools of HRO Status] [Table of Contents] [REFERENCES (A-B)]