Sometimes seemingly small lessons enter our lives and change us forever. When I was a pre-service teacher, one of my professors showed a short film, “Cipher in the Snow.” The film depicts the story of a student of poverty who is neglected at school. He dies, and his teachers realize they don’t even know if he was in their classes. That film helped shape my goal of leaving no child behind.
A lot of ciphers in the snow go through Oregon schools every year. They may be quietly ignored, or they may be the attention-getting student who is never ignored. Either way, they get lost in the system. Over 6,000 students drop out of school in Oregon every year. One out of three students will not earn their diploma in four years. While many alternative schools are high performing, The Oregonian (June 16, 2012) published an article about Portland’s most struggling students going to alternative schools where there is little accountability for student success and few graduate.
Sometimes it is easy for schools to give up on the most struggling students. They are often children of poverty or minorities, and they may lack family members who are advocates for their education. In addition, struggling students as a subgroup score lower on state tests. They can be more difficult to teach. How many students will we leave behind this year? More importantly, what are successful schools doing to help struggling students succeed?
What works in schools where struggling students succeed?
There is a magic formula. It is: quality teachers plus the three “R’s.” First, and most importantly, successful schools where struggling—sometimes called at-risk—students succeed are hiring the best quality, most highly effective teachers. Numerous studies show the quality of the teacher is the number one factor in success for at-risk and non at-risk students alike. A quality teacher is one who is able to consistently assist their students in making significant academic progress, manage a student-centered classroom, and build positive relationships with diverse students.
The successful education of struggling students also incorporates the three “R’s”—rigor, relevance, and relationships. Too often schools weaken the education of struggling students. They are housed in “programs” rather than receiving meaningful rigorous education. Struggling students succeed when they are challenged. The biggest difference is that they need additional—often significantly additional—support or scaffolding to master the challenging work. The work needs to be meaningful, differentiated, and have real life connections. Finally, Dr. James Comer says no significant learning with at-risk students occurs without a significant relationship with an adult. Only quality, highly effective teachers can successfully do all that. How do we get the best teachers to work in high needs schools with struggling students? Check in for that conversation in a future blog post.
Struggling student success stories
Struggling students who are lucky enough to find a challenging school with a quality teacher paint a picture of why they should never get “left behind.” I reflected on a recent week where I interacted with five professionals who were once pegged as potential school dropouts and were failing their classes. My hairdresser, the mechanic at the tire shop, the carpenter remodeling my house, the nurse at the hospital, and the manager at the moving company all could have had very different life stories instead of actively participating in their communities.
Some schools for potentially at-risk students see school-wide success. Lincoln Preparatory Academy in Kansas City has an 86% minority and a 60% free and reduced lunch population. Located in a traditionally low achieving school district, they became visionary in helping students succeed by becoming an IB Diploma Programme. Now, 97% of graduates go to college. The KIPP School in Houston has a free and reduced lunch student population of 89% and a high minority student population, yet 100% of the students go to college.
Why is this important?
Leaving children behind in school is a drain on the economy. The unemployment rate for a high school dropout in July was 12.7 %. It was only 4.1% for a college graduate. We miss the opportunity to reap the benefits of contributing members of society when students fail to thrive in school. Moreover, it is harmful to the student. They never get to become the person they could potentially be.
Hurray for teachers who believe that all students can learn to a high degree, and can work to help all students succeed. Teaching is challenging. We need to support teachers as they work with struggling students. What if we didn’t leave any students behind this school year?