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Connecting At Risk Students to the Curriculum

In a 4/8/14 Education Week article titled Is the Stress of Poverty to Blame for Academic Failure?, Peter DeWitt details the achievement challenge facing some of our nation’s toughest schools. In his article, DeWitt focuses on schools with 75% or more of their students living in poverty. DeWitt details what is often revealed through arrays of standardized testing results and what is commonly understood among those who work in PK – 12 schools in the United States, the average measured academic performance of students in PK -12 schools with high poverty rates is significantly and  consistently below that of the students in more economically advantaged schools.

The problem that DeWitt highlights in his article is that we know that there are achievement challenges in high poverty schools but we still do not have a widely recognized methodology for successfully addressing the needs of these schools. In concluding his article, DeWitt offers some possible solutions to the problem that he identified.

While DeWitt’s article certainly makes and interesting point, it does not address some core issues. Specifically, DeWitt points out that “it has been a mistake to assume that principals and teachers would figure out how to overcome the obstacles facing high-poverty schools without specific training and support.” DeWitt then fails to detail just what that training would entail. Instead, DeWitt goes on to obscurely describe the type of school/school environment that he feels would best serve students in at risk schools.

Speaking as a former school district superintendent, who has worked in some very impoverished settings with at risk students, DeWitt’s analysis is incomplete. Also, the core issue that DeWitt fails to identify in his analysis is that while it is true that principals and teachers need support in high poverty-low achievement/at risk schools, the type of training and support that would be needed for each setting is variable. Why? Each school exists within its own context and as a result has a unique and dynamic set of variables that impact the achievement of the students that it serves. With this understanding, instead of seeking to create a catchall, generically fortified school environment as DeWitt suggests, to make our work more efficient and effective we must focus on connecting students to the curriculum to maximize our efforts to increase student learning.

I know that it takes an “NFL offensive playbook” of strategies to begin to attack the challenge of connecting students to the curriculum in meaningful ways so that they learn in at risk schools. In fact, I have written about just that in this forum. The key in having the offensive playbook though is knowing which plays to call and why. Just as effective play calling utilizes the strengths of a team by putting the ball in the hands of playmakers in the right positions so the team can score points, the same is true in schools. We have to use variations of the right core strategies in tandem in each context to be effective. I define the core strategies as people, relevance, time on task, and environment.

People in and of themselves are not a reform strategy. However, identifying and hiring a staff filled with the right people from top to bottom is. The first step in reforming an at risk school is to get all the right people on staff. More than in any other PK – 12 school setting the achievement of at risk schools depends on the quality of the teachers in the school and their commitment to the intensive instruction and remediation that will be needed to move the school forward academically. Second, staff in at risk schools must work to make the curriculum relevant to students so that they engage in it. Teachers must show students how the curriculum benefits them and impacts their daily lives. Parents cannot be forgotten in this effort to make the school and what it offers i.e. an education, relevant. No school can see significant improvement in student achievement without parents and the school community embracing the effort, reinforcing expectations, and making sure that students do what is required. It truly takes a cultural change in a school community for an at risk school to experience significant gains. The school staff, led by the principal, must set the stage for this to occur.

Time on task is also an important factor in at risk schools. Because large numbers of students in at risk schools often have academic deficits, these schools must employ strategies that increase the time students spend engaging with the curriculum so that they can develop missing skills, and recover knowledge while accessing the curriculum in a timely fashion. Also, in employing this strategy, the students must see the content in multiple formats so that the presentations and their details are memorable.

Finally, at risk schools must work to provide an optimal environment for teaching and learning. While the nature of students and schools as large, busy places lend themselves to distraction, staff in at risk schools must work to mitigate this factor. Predictable routines, a firm-fair-and consistent approach to student discipline, a focus on personal relationships, celebrations of successes and commitment to a common vision are all required. Staff in at risk schools must make these practices the norm, if they are to establish school cultures that promote student success in at risk environments.

To close, one of the fundamental keys to moving at risk schools forward academically is to connect students to the curriculum in meaningful ways so that they learn. In seeking ways to connect students in at risk schools to the curriculum, there are some fundamental areas that must be addressed. These include people/staffing, establishing the school’s relevance to students’ lives and to the benefit of the entire school community, providing more focused time on task for students, and creating the appropriate environment of support and accountability for students to be successful in. These keys can and must be activated in select tandems based on the dynamics of each school community to impact the culture and operation of schools to connect students to the curriculum in meaningful ways to ensure learning through their engagement in their education. Our nation’s future success depends on this.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO