Can We Improve Student Achievement for At-Risk Students?


After thinking about the status of education in the United States for the past few years, as well as working in this system, several conclusions can be reached about improving the state of education in America. Having worked with at-risk students, I am beginning to understand the specific needs to make education successful for this demographic group. At the same time, there are things that one might think will work and do not. These students are in my humble opinion, the ones on which we need to focus as their improvement will boost overall student achievement and most likely, have an important effect on educational effectiveness in the United States.

The United States is focused on improving test scores, particularly with the at-risk segment, to be competitive in educational outcomes as well as to be considered excellent and exceptional as a country. It is noble and appropriate for a well-developed country to educate its own equally, that is equity in education for all.  How to achieve this with our vast diverse population is another question. We do not have the homogeneity of Finland or South Korea. We are the United States of America, a melting pot and home to all people. In reviewing how to educate all with equity for the future, one must address that children are human beings and must be a whole person first. If you educate the whole child, their differences and specific needs are considered. One size will not fit all, so the use of standardized tests comes into question. Do we want this to be the measuring stick for achievement?  Can these tests possibly evaluate all aptitude or achievement? Can we consider ingenuity, innovation, creativity and hard work?  These elements create a comprehensive education. There are many schools claiming they have found the formula to raise student achievement, some who just give up because the truth is poverty is the ill we need to fix, and many just can’t take on the enormity of that.

First to address is the continuous outcry that we are failing and have fallen behind other countries. The belief is we need to be more like Finland and South Korea as they are models of quality education(and they are). I already said that we are not a homogeneous country, so our task to equally educate is large. Students come from many backgrounds and come to the table in early education with a variety of tools, or no tools.  We need to fix that and begin to have everyone start on an equal playing field. Comparing the US to Finland or South Korea is apples and oranges. Maybe we can employ some of their best practices, for one, giving teachers a professional status and making admittance to teacher training programs and the training itself, rigorous.  Give teaching the status and rewards that it deserves to attract the best and brightest.  It is not for those “who cannot do” or as a fall back for a young woman until she finds a husband. Not OK!!

Second we must create thinkers and problem solvers. There are a variety of ways to do this, which is fodder for a future post. Suffice it to say that we must create children who can think and solve problems in any venue. Stuff or things does not create education. Materials do not create education. It is the time, presence and engagement of the facilitators of education, the teachers.

The last problem to deal with in this post is the at-risk population. The truth is not so much that our education system is bad, it is more that it does not address appropriately the real problem, which is poverty and lack of prior education or experience of parents.  Many parents, most, want to do the best for their children.  Even though history may tend to repeat itself, some of this happens because of a lack of education, choices, and direction.   School must create an alternate environment for students, including pre-school students, in which the educational tapestry is rich with a variety of experiences that include art, music, reading stories, literacy, numeracy and the like.images

Poverty is the true barrier to student achievement and our time and money should be used to help to solve that problem and to select and train teachers as professionals from the start, not as baby sitters who will then be told how to do everything by those from the outside. Improve teacher training programs and the criteria to be admitted to such. Raise that bar and student achievement will follow.  I have heard from administrators and teachers that the parents don’t want to be involved, the population is too difficult. With all due respect, I have experienced the opposite.  I see parents who care. As teachers and administrators we must educate parents as well as children. We must assume their engagement and stay positive that they will enlist. I have experienced and believe “If you build it, they will come.”  Approach parents from a point of strength.

The realization is that as a country, we must support students learning to think and solve problems, not just to memorize stuff to perform like trained seals. Having great test scores does not necessarily mean there is student achievement. It means there are decent test scores and there is achievement on that test at that particular time and that is it.

There is no clear answer to the question of poverty. There are some incredible examples of success in at-risk schools. For example, Take IS 318 in Bedford-Stuyvesant in  Brooklyn, NY, known now as Brooklyn Castle. Check out this incredible success story HERE.   Here is an article about Nine  Powerful Practices for success in teaching students in poverty. Investigate the KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) and their success with difficult populations.

We must model to students and assume that they will understand and all the while consider that their point of reference is different.  Each student will tell you who they are if you ask questions and teach them how to ask questions in return. And above all, listen to them.  All of these ingredients may only be a start. I don’t think a cookie cutter model of a successful school for children in poverty exists. I do know that these children are human beings like you or I and that they want to learn and grow. They do not want to be on the outside looking in-they want to play in the game.  Struggling to exist can be oppressive, so if for part of the day, we can take that pressure away and provide a caring, nurturing, real environment, it will help. We must make students feel safe and secure and encourage trust to build relationships. We must replicate what is successful while understanding cultural differences.

To do for Successful Education for Students in Poverty:

  • Courtesy
  • Respect
  • Create Community
  • Create Resilience and Responsibility
  • Students Needs
  • Student Interests
  • Families
  • Adapt curriculum to clientele instead of “one size fits all.”
  • Focus on Positive Behavior
  • Achievement Creates Self-Esteem

I appreciate any feedback about your experiences.

This was a well-said, important comment on the state of education:

Diane Ravitch on privatizing education in the US.

Categories: 21st Century Education, critical thinking, Education reform, poverty in education, Uncategorized, Underrepresented populations in STEM

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