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


The need to "raise the performance of at-risk youth" has become a popular rallying cry for school reform, yet there is often confusion or disagreement about which children are at risk, why they are at risk, and what can be done to improve their chances for success in school and adult life. Too often the media sensationalize dropout rates and test scores, while oversimplifying or ignoring the reasons why children become at risk. Adding to the confusion, the literature on students at risk is constantly expanding and changing, and there are varying and often sharply divergent interpretations of the data on students at risk and the programs that serve them. The purpose of this monograph is to bring together what has been learned over the past few decades about children at risk, to analyze current strategies designed to improve student and school performance, and to propose ways of achieving academic excellence with high reliability.

Section I - Becoming At Risk of Failure in America's Schools

In this section, we integrate research on students at risk into a conceptual framework for addressing the societal, home, and school-related factors that influence academic success.

An Historical Overview

Social, political, and economic changes have led to an expansion of educational opportunities for all students and fostered concerns about "at-risk youth." However, the effects of past injustices linger on. If we are now a "nation at risk," it is -- to a large extent -- the culmination of disastrous, persistent, and, in many cases, intentional biases in our educational system and society.

Throughout much of U.S. history, the separate and unequal schooling of poor children and children of color has been reinforced by social mores, justified by pseudo- science, and, in many cases, mandated by law. After World War II, divergent trends intensified demands for expanded accessibility to high quality education. Varied approaches (desegregation, compensatory education, and community/culture-based instruction) have been attempted to achieve educational equity, excellence, and relevance.

Student Background

Historically, children of color and poor youth have been disproportionately at risk in our schools. Yet they are not the only children at risk. Any child who lacks sufficient support may fail to develop adequate academic and social skills. Prenatal conditions, quality of health, family characteristics, peer influences, community climate, and social status may be affected by support networks and significantly influence a child's "readiness to learn."

Diverse strategies involving school, business, social service, and community-based organizations have been suggested to reduce environmental risks. Notable in the literature is a shift away from a single-minded focus on crisis intervention to an emphasis on preventive or developmental services that bolster families and address multiple needs. While many of these interventions may center on schools or involve collaborations between schools and communities, others may require fundamental changes in social services and society. Specific strategies proposed by various researchers, policymakers, and child advocates include:

Some of these proposals are controversial, and many may be quite expensive to implement. Proponents argue that these programs would be less expensive than raising a "lost generation" of young people unable to find employment, care for their families, and meet personal and social responsibilities.

School Environment

It is important to recognize the effect of student background on children's "readiness to learn." Yet are our schools "ready to teach" children from diverse backgrounds? Many of the schools that serve poor children and children of color may lack an engaging school climate, adequate support services, and challenging instruction. Proposals to enhance the school environment for children from diverse backgrounds include:

Conceptual Framework

Drawing upon the literature on students at risk, we argue that academic progress is an ongoing function of (1) the quality of students' environmental and school-based resources and (2) the incentives and pressures perceived by students to invest these resources in academic achievement. Past returns on educational investments cumulatively impact the likelihood of academic success.

In our conceptualization, "risk factors" are variables that decrease the probability of academic progress. Too often, entire socioeconomic groups are stigmatized with the "at- risk" label, implying that they are somehow inherently less capable of academic success. We believe that risk factors are best conceptualized as aspects of societal, home, or school dysfunction rather than as qualities inherent in children. If an improvement in resources eliminates the risk factors that threaten academic progress, a student should no longer be considered or labeled "at risk."

Section II - Rising to the Challenge: Emerging Strategies for Educating Students at Risk

In this section, we analyze both traditional and innovative school responses to the challenge of educating students at risk. Given the diversity of the student population, no single strategy will provide the solution to all education-related ills. The challenge for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners is to develop connected strategies that stimulate learning among all students, while ensuring that the specific needs of students at greatest risk are not lost in the fray.

Compensatory Education: Traditional Responses and Current Tensions

Schools traditionally have responded to student diversity and poor academic performance with both organizational and programmatic approaches. Organizational approaches include ability grouping and grade retention. Programmatic approaches include special education and Chapter 1 pull-out programs. These traditional approaches may stigmatize students, decrease learning opportunities, provide less stimulating learning environments, and lack cost-effectiveness.

Tensions emerging from the knowledge base of nearly 30 years of practice are causing researchers and educators to question these traditional approaches. Remedial programs are now encouraged to emphasize higher order thinking skills, and mainstreaming and whole-school restructuring are embraced as alternatives to pull-out programs.

Emerging Strategies

To create a challenging, nonstigmatizing learning environment that meets student needs, policymakers have proposed significant changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and organizational strategies. Specific proposals include:

Strategic Issues

If schools are interested in producing lasting positive effects for students at risk, they need to develop comprehensive reform strategies that influence students' opportunities and motivation to learn. To affect opportunities and motivations, a comprehensive strategy must promote academic success, relevance of the school program, positive relations within school, and supportive conditions beyond school.

Unfortunately, even when promising reforms contain these elements, they may have a "fade-out" effect because the programs are short term. The learning gains achieved in early intervention programs may dissipate unless these gains are supported and built upon in the later grades.

Also, policymakers need to be aware that different kinds of assistance may be more important at different stages of development. The nature of students' problems changes as students approach maturity. Thus, while family support teams may help elementary students, high school students may need help with drug abuse or pregnancy.

Finally, policymakers must recognize that both case management approaches for students with severe problems and schoolwide reform plans for all students are necessary to improve education. Schoolwide reforms must be attended to first, especially in schools with large numbers of students at risk, since poor instructional environments will not support student learning even for those provided with extra help.

Section III - Barriers and Pathways to Meaningful Reforms: The Need for High Reliability Organizational Structures

In the final section of this monograph, "Barriers and Pathways to Meaningful Reforms: The Need for High Reliability Organizational Structures," we examine the obstacles to reform implementation and suggest steps toward developing school organizational structures that may help ensure higher student success rates.

Organizational Barriers to Reform

If effective strategies for achieving educational equity and excellence are already known, why aren't they being implemented? For schools to improve, educators, parents, and other concerned citizens must engage in contextually sensitive organizational development. There are six main barriers to organizational reform:

(1) Obstacles are not clearly understood and stated.
(2) It is hard to determine the best solution within an individual site.
(3) Prior educational strategies are not always compatible with school contexts.
(4) The human and fiscal costs of implementation are typically underestimated.
(5) The requirements for full implementation are not understood.
(6) Programs often fail to gain public support.

To remove these barriers to reform, the strengths and weaknesses of schools need to be honestly assessed, and proven solutions must be sought. Proposed solutions must be made compatible with the current strengths of the school, and the requirements of full implementation must be thoroughly understood by all participants. In addition, public support must be built through effective information gathering and development of a sense of shared purpose.

Toward Schools as High Reliability Organizations (HROs)

In areas deemed critical to the public interest (e.g., air traffic control), organizational structures have evolved to meet the requirements of virtual 100 percent reliability. High reliability organizations develop standard operating procedures, train staff, coordinate activities, and monitor performance with the utmost care. Schools must make major organizational changes if they are to produce academic success with similar high reliability. These changes will be more expensive than the costs of maintaining the present organizational structure, but ultimately they will be less costly than paying for continued expansion of welfare, police, and prison programs.

We now know enough to improve the reliability of schools for students at risk. Many of the systemic, school-, and classroom-level changes can be described and undertaken. Whether as one nation and as a conglomeration of over 15,000 school districts we can muster the will to fully implement what we know, fund the search for new knowledge, and achieve universally high quality schooling for students remains an unanswered question.

[ PREFACE ] [Table of Contents] [SECTION I: Becoming At Risk of Failure in America's Schools]