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Critical Issue: Rethinking Learning for Students at Risk

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ISSUE: Students identified as being at risk of educational failure often receive a watered-down curriculum that emphasizes the acquisition of basic academic skills. All students--especially those at risk--need to be engaged in interesting and challenging learning that goes beyond basic proficiencies. One of the best ways to ensure meaningful, engaged learning for all students is by developing whole-school programs in which classroom teachers, specialists, administrators, and support staff collaborate to provide improved schoolwide instruction. Supportive instruction within the regular classroom can be provided for those students who need additional help in meeting high academic standards. Strategies for promoting learning for at-risk students can be enhanced by appropriate assessment, ongoing professional development, and parental involvement.

OVERVIEW: Research on programs for at-risk students, particularly Title I-funded programs, has raised many questions about approaches to learning and the content and delivery of educational support efforts. In particular, the following areas are being reconceptualized:

High expectations are being recognized as key to the success of all students, especially those at risk. Traditional ability grouping of students often leads to diminished expectations and lower achievement levels for students who are placed in lower tracks. For example, Allington (1995) notes that the traditional placement of first-grade students into three reading groups of high, middle, and low achievement "predicts future educational outcomes with alarming accuracy" (p. 2). By using heterogeneous grouping of students rather than ability grouping, teachers will no longer pace their instruction to the perceived ability level of the class. Instead, accelerated learning will meet the needs of students of varying abilities and interests.

Asa Hilliard Asa Hilliard, professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, talks about the importance of holding high expectations for at-risk students and helping them learn skills in critical and conceptual thinking. [476k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Restructuring to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #9, Reconnecting Students at Risk to the Learning Process (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990). A text transcript is available.

Title I legislation dictates that all students should receive an education that develops their skills in problem solving and advanced thinking. Yet according to Means and Knapp (1991), the dominant approaches to teaching at-risk students provide "little or nothing to foster the growth of reasoning, problem solving, and independent thinking" (p. 4). The traditional model of focusing on basic skills before providing more challenging materials has produced some modest outcomes but not the positive gains that are necessary for completing complex tasks both in and out of school. Rather than concentrating on basic skills, a more integrated approach with meaningful, authentic tasks is being proposed for at-risk students. These changes are based on current understandings of learning.

Research on learning has documented that there is not a clear developmental sequence from literal meaning and skills to more advanced thinking (Means & Knapp, 1991; Palincsar & Klenk, 1991). As students learn, they concurrently use basic skills and higher level thinking skills. All students need to be able to interpret, analyze, solve problems, and make sense of what they are learning. In a thinking curriculum, students are encouraged and expected to use such advanced thinking skills. This more integrated view of learning further challenges a discrete skills and memorization approach to even the basics of reading and mathematics. A recent study on meaning-oriented education in high-poverty classrooms (Knapp & Associates, 1995) concluded that meaning-oriented instruction produces authentic and practical learning and is more effective than traditional skills-oriented practices for at-risk students.

Research findings also are helping educators recognize the need for students to take an active role in the learning process. When students are responsible for their own learning, they actively plan, organize, and evaluate their progress. At-risk students can become more active, strategic learners when they develop metacognition, or the ability to think about their own thinking and learning. With metacognitive awareness, students can actively plan how to learn, monitor their progress, and evaluate their own achievements. Cooperative learning allows students of varying abilities and interests to share responsibility for learning as they work together in small groups to research topics, solve problems, and improve their understanding of subject matter. Peer tutoring, which can help both tutor and tutee to take an active role in learning, encourages the development of academic and social skills as students teach other students.

Gerald Dreyfuss Gerald Dreyfuss, assistant superintendent of Dade County Public Schools in Dade County, Florida, discusses the benefits of cooperative learning for at-risk students. [336k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Reconstructing to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #9, Reconnecting Students at Risk to the Learning Process (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990). A text transcript is available.

The work of educators such as Caine and Caine (1991) and Brooks and Brooks (1993) supports a constructivist view of learning, which holds that students create their own meaning and interpretations as they learn. Constructivist teaching and learning models emphasize the context in which an idea is taught as well as the students' prior beliefs and attitudes. Constructivist models enable students to take an active role in their learning. Shifting the role of the learner from a passive to an active one occurs when students have richer units of learning, multiple sources of information, and longer time periods within which to build meaning. It also means that the activities and contexts in which students are engaged should be meaningful to them so they will make connections between school learning and the world beyond school. Recognition of the affective dimensions of learning recently has been underscored in research on learning. Students learn best in an emotional climate that is supportive and marked by mutual respect (Caine & Caine, 1991).

Instructional support for at-risk students also is being redefined on the basis of evaluation results from Title I and special education programs. Pulling students out of the regular classroom to receive separate instructional services has negative consequences, particularly the students' loss of esteem by being labeled different, the loss in time and lack of coherence with the regular curriculum, and the lack of communication between teachers. The pull-out model is being replaced with in-class programs, in which special teachers provide additional help for students within the regular classroom setting, and schoolwide programs, in which all teachers team together to provide richer instruction for all students. Schoolwide programs, notes Burnett (1993), "can help schools to eliminate pull-outs completely or to redefine them as an 'as-needed' service instead of as the core of a program." Some educators have suggested extending learning time for disadvantaged students through extracurricular activities, after-school cultural and recreational activities, and community service.

Appropriate use of assessments to measure students' development and academic growth is especially important for those at risk. When children first enter school, diagnostic assessments monitor their needs so that support for learning can be provided before failure occurs. Early intervention programs help children overcome any academic deficiencies so that they maintain a sense of success and self-esteem in the classroom. Assessments that recognize incremental improvement are useful in motivating at-risk students. As students progress through school, alternative assessments can focus on improved performance by allowing students to demonstrate what they have learned rather than how well they can take a test. Such new assessment strategies might include oral interviews, science experiments, exhibits, skill demonstrations, and portfolios of the student's work over time.

As they support meaningful learning for all students, teachers will understand the keys to motivation to learn. Teachers' knowledge of the learning process and their ability to use strategies to engage at-risk students in meaningful learning are enhanced through ongoing professional development. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development.")

George Brown George Brown, principal at North Miami Elementary School in Miami, Florida, describes how teachers can motivate at-risk students by providing individualized attention, academic challenges, and opportunities to achieve success. [336k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Reconstructing to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #9, Reconnecting Students at Risk to the Learning Process (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990). A text transcript is available.

The importance of parent and family involvement in schools also has been recognized as a way to improve learning for at-risk students. Menacker, Hurwitz, and Weldon (1988) state:

"The power and authority of the school alone are insufficient to ensure the good discipline and motivation necessary for acceptable educational outcomes. Parental support and involvement are needed. ... We must recognize the value of the resulting new synthesis, supported by both research and common sense, that the home and school are interdependent and necessary factors for educational improvement in schools serving the urban poor." (p. 111)

Research by Comer and Haynes (1992) indicates that parental involvement contributes to improved academic performance, behavior, and self-esteem of at-risk students. (Refer to the Critical Issues "Supporting Ways Parents and Families Can Become Involved in Schools" and "Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement.")

GOALS: Many schools serving at-risk students are located in high-poverty, inner-city areas. Compared to their suburban counterparts, these schools often have facilities that are outdated or in disrepair. They also may lack broad curricular offerings, adequate instructional materials, and access to technology for their students. Rates of student mobility and absenteeism may be high. In spite of such conditions, schools can aim toward the following goals to promote learning for at-risk students:

ACTION OPTIONS: Administrators and teachers can take the following steps to promote meaningful learning for at-risk students:



IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Several issues need to be addressed as schools move to provide a richer learning experience for at-risk students.

First, many teachers, administrators, and parents still maintain traditional concepts of education. They believe that learning is skills-based and sequential and that at-risk students are deficient and need slow, deliberate, skills-based instruction. They also may operate from a traditional view of the teacher as a dispenser of knowledge and right answers who is autonomous in the classroom. Although these concepts are difficult to change, they must be addressed and overcome as part of the shift to more meaningful instruction for all students.

Second, schools traditionally have not worked as focused units. To coordinate instruction and provide more teaming within the instructional staff requires major time and effort. Deliberate attention to teacher cooperation may be needed if teachers are unaccustomed to teaming and working together in classrooms.

Third, at-risk students often present challenges to teachers at a basic level of classroom order and management. Teachers need to develop strategies for engaging students in active learning instead of expecting them to sit and listen for long periods of time. Helping teachers develop better classroom management systems underlies any successful effort for more meaningful instruction. As students become engaged, self-regulated learners, the teacher's role changes from maintaining control to modeling effective learning strategies and providing instructional support (McCombs, 1996).

Finally, any change effort in the classroom requires that teachers have significant support for study, development of options, experimentation, and communication. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development.") Administrators, parents, and community members need to understand this process and provide support to teachers.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: For students needing support in their learning, American education traditionally has emphasized the acquisition of subskills. According to this viewpoint, students build learning sequences by analyzing the separate components of language and the basic operations of mathematics to determine the underlying subskills. For example, the reading process has been described as a set of skills moving from letter recognition to phonics to word knowledge, from oral reading to literal understanding of details, and finally to locating main ideas. Some initial reading programs require the teaching of all letter names and phonic associations before students are given any stories or materials to read. In mathematics, a similar orientation is the emphasis on students learning computational skills and memorizing addition and subtraction tables before they are introduced to any real-world purposes or problems. Many tests used in schools also reflect this subskill orientation.

Traditionalists, such as Hirsch (1987), believe that a specific body of factual knowledge should be transmitted to students. They emphasize the importance of memorizing factual information and being taught a specific curriculum.

Some educators believe that schools should emphasize direct instruction and should tailor instructional strategies to students' needs. For example, Sizemore (cited in Raack, 1995) emphasizes instruction as the first priority of effective schools serving low-income, minority children. She states that progressive educational approaches, such as cooperative learning, do not provide the high degree of structure that at-risk students need in order to achieve. Further, she argues against the exclusive use of alternative assessment, noting that it does not equip students with the test-taking skills they will need for admission to college.


Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) Program

Winston-Salem Project

Early Intervention in Reading

Coalition of Essential Schools Model

Success for All Model

Accelerated Schools Model

Reading Recovery


Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR)
Johns Hopkins University/Howard University
Center for the Social Organization of Schools
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(410) 516-8800; fax (410) 516-8890
Contact: John H. Hollifield, Associate Director

Center for School and Community Development
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
1120 Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
(630) 649-6500; fax (630) 649-6700

Coalition of Essential Schools
Box 1969
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
(401) 863-3384

National Center for Children in Poverty
Columbia University School of Public Health
154 Haven Ave.
New York, NY 10032
(212) 304-7100; fax (212) 544-4200
Contact: Carol Oshinsky, Coordinator of Library and Information Resources

National Center on Education in the Inner Cities (CEIC)
Temple University
933 Ritter Hall Annex
13th and Cecil B. Moore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19122
(215) 204-3001
Contact: Margaret Wang

National Reading Recovery Office
Ohio State University, College of Education
200 Gramseyer Hall
29 W. Woodruff Ave.
Columbus, OH 43210
(614) 292-2909; fax (614) 292-4260

National Urban Alliance for Effective Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
Box 149
New York, NY 10027
(800) 682-4556; fax (908) 604-0711
Contact: Eric J. Cooper, Executive Director

Success for All/ Roots and Wings
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(800) 548-4998 or (410) 516-8896; fax (410) 516-8890


Additional Reading

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Donna M. Ogle, professor of reading and language at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Date posted: 1997
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