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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A high school principal recently caught me off guard. When I asked him how he deals with the challenges of educating students who are still learning English, he had this to say : "These students are delightful to teach and are certainly excited learners, so I'm not exactly sure what is meant by 'challenge.'"

The policy wonk in me was ready to lay out all kinds of data on test scores, drop-out rates, retention rates -- standard fare in these discussions -- but I stopped short. He clearly wasn't willing to go down that road.

And with good reason. It's all too easy to wish "challenging" students away -- to some other school or district. The principal's response was the mark of a true educator. And he has taught me to cringe at some of the words we commonly apply to children, such as, challenging, low-performing, or even vulnerable.

That got me thinking: Are we harming the students we most want to help?

This question looms large as more and more schools end up in the papers for low performance. The number of schools that haven't met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), as defined by No Child Left Behind, is set to explode in the coming years. So, too, will the number of schools laboring under the stigma of failure.

Take Seaford Middle School in Delaware. Seaford's principal, Stephanie Smith, became her state's principal of the year in 2008 after presiding over dramatic gains in student performance. Now, as her school falls short of AYP, it must again struggle with public perceptions that it's failing. Smith told me that she had already lost some of her highest-scoring students to a nearby charter school, though Seaford has managed to stem that tide.

So will well-intentioned programs to identify struggling schools hasten school segregation? I worry that, as the feds label more schools as "persistently low achieving," middle class families will decide not to cast their lot with students who don't get high scores on state tests.

Patrick Welsh, who teaches at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, recently described in the Washington Post the impact the "low achieving" label has had on his school. Students feel the sting, too, and rumors are flying that wealthier parents will take their children "out of T.C. and send...them to private schools." One of the high school's great strengths -- its racial and economic diversity -- could be at risk.

I confess that I'm not sure how we can avoid this danger.

It won't do to turn a blind eye to struggling schools. Smith believes that data on Seaford Middle School's performance have helped the school improve. And eventually seeing his school's unflattering label as a useful kick in the pants, Welsh said, "Labels can be unfair. They never tell the whole story. But though we never wanted to achieve our new label, I have no doubt that it will help us get back to achieving our best."

Is there a way to shine a light on low performing schools without stigmatizing children who attend them? Please contribute your ideas to this discussion.

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TaylorDH's picture

Without a doubt the children, and those staff members who are at these "challenging" schools because their hearts are in the right place, have been, and are being unfairly stigmitized. It truly gets into the minds of the children, in particular, that they are "challenges", and they subsequently become "challenges". However, I believe that there is a phenomena being overlooked when it comes to the education of these "challenging" students. It has been my experience that a great deal of staff members come to these schools in order to have their student loans forgiven, and as soon as they "do their time" they transfer to the "safe" part of town. Again, it has been my experience that the children pick up on this fact right away. Instead of infusing these wonderful young minds with learning opportunities of the world, they are being policed and yelled at all day by someone who needs to get their student loans paid off. Think about how damaging that is to a young, impressionable mind. In my professional opinion, that is more harmful than a school's name being put into the newspaper. Believe me, I am not discounting the unfairness of labeling, I've lived it, and as a professional, trying to do something about it.

Jaime K's picture

Is there a way to improve a school's condition without labeling it "challenging", etc? Yes.
How we do it w/o stigmatizing the students? By not labeling it failing, ever. Because that is such a negative word, that will be the only thing a person hears in a whole 5 minute speech, dialog, or understand from a newspaper article, etc...
I was actually grappling with this exact subject today in my last block with several students when the subject came up by students claiming they know the teachers that 'don't like them' or are just there til retirement. I asked how in the world would they know this and why would they even think that. I was shocked by the barrage of examples the students gave me of events I had heard by parents and other teachers, but never witnessed myself.
Though I wouldn't allow ANY disrespectful comment made about the teachers, the students were quick to name the teachers that were known by the adults as less than stellar educators. The students also talked about how they were embarrassed to claim they went to this school and would lie when someone asked which school they went to.
How does a school, more specifically a principal, handle a situation of teachers riding out their retirement, or loan 'sentence' when the school is struggling to meet the ridiculous demands placed on them by NCLB? The teachers can't be fired in my state if they have tenure and it takes a school year of documentation and dozens of meetings and observations to get an ineffectual teacher out.
Tell me, how many admin have that much time on their hands when they work at one of these schools? They don't, b/c there aren't enough admin at each school and the ones there are busy all through the day dealing with behavior issues and what time is left is used to do the mandatory other meetings and instructional guidance they are required to do.
The only thing I can see that could change a school's climate and it's reputation is the actual and daily support of parents. Bar none, schools that have parental support be it urban or suburban schools, improve the quickest and reduce the negativity the fastest.
The problem is getting all those self absorbed parents and other family members to take the time to commit to changing the school and its reputation for their children and others in their community, instead of complaining and thinking their personal lives are more important. They can't seem to realize that their children, right now, are the most important thing to focus on. And if they don't focus on them, few others will or can.

Devon Carroll's picture

I think that this is the biggest question that education faces today. In a time where so many diverse groups of students with different achievement levels are being joined together, it is difficult to find a straight forward solution.
The best solution that I can see is bringing in the best teachers as possible into areas in which schools are struggling. I greatly admire organizations such as "Teach for America" that send graduates to at risk areas. I also think it would be helpful to develop some type of support for teachers that are working in areas with diverse learners ( even develop a specific curriculum). I also think that it would be helpful to develop after school programs that can cater to the specific needs of students.
The upper class families are always going to look at private schools as an option. I think that it would be helpful to point out the benefits of diversity in school in regards to college and volunteer programs. This may draw the upper, middle class back into the school. For example, if a family wants their student to get into a good college, they need a well-rounded experience which a diverse school can easily provide. I also think that it is a good idea to celebrate each culture within the curriculum and to take time to identify the top issues that students are having.
The key is to maintain hope. Students who do not have hope are not going to care about learning. If rumors are already starting and students already think that they are less then good enough, it is important to boost morale. This begins with the attitudes of the administration. Instill hope in students and better things will follow.

Renee W's picture

My school was able to turn around the negative stigma of "low performing". After restructuring, creating smaller learning communities, and adopting a new teaching strategy we finally made AYP and most importantly, changed the culture of my school. When programs were created or guest speakers were invited we called the disrtict news crew to cover all of the "great" events happening at my school. This made a big difference in the community and in my students. The negatives were turned into postivies

Kiya Tillman's picture

I dont believe in bad students, only bad teachers. Labeling is very harmful, as students become what we call them. Students rise to the expectations we set, and if we go into the classroom with the mindset of teaching "bad" students, we are likely to treat them this way. If we took the time to understand the circumstances from which these children come, and adopted a more empathatic attitude we could learn to teach them appropiately. Change your bad perception and approach, and I guarantee you will see change in your students.

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