George Lucas Educational Foundation

Are We Stigmatizing the Students We Most Want to Help?

March 23, 2010

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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  • 6-8 Middle School

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