School Issues that Relate to At-Risk Children and Youth

School Issues that Relate to At-Risk Children and Youth

  • If families do not… Then schools must
  • Provide roots for children…So they stand firm and grow,
  • Provide wings for children…So they can fly.
  • Broken roots and crippled wingsDestroy hope.
  • And hope sees the invisible,Feels the intangible, And achieves the impossible.



The Value of Education

Box 5.1 Separate and Unequal 15-Year-Olds

Research on Effective Schools

Variables in Research on School Effects

  • Leadership behaviors
  • Academic emphasis
  • Teacher and staff factors
  • Student involvement
  • Community support
  • Social capital

Definitional Issues in Research on School Effects

Case Study: The Diaz Family

  • School culture
  • Student climate
  • Peer involvement
  • Teacher climate

Box 5.2 Teacher Climate

Educational Structure: Schools and Classrooms

School Structure

School Choice

Charter Schools

Classroom Structure

Curriculum Issues


  • In education, the term at risk refers primarily to students who are at risk of school failure. As we discussed earlier, at risk actually means much more than flunking reading or math, or even dropping out of school. Yet from an educator’s perspective, educational concerns define at-risk issues. School problems and dropout are linked to many other problems expressed by young people (Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007; Henry et al., 2009; Rumberger & Ah Lim, 2008). The strong relationships between school difficulties and other problems, as well as evidence that educational involvement is a protective factor influencing resilience (Search Institute, 2006), highlight the pivotal position of schools. In schools, prevention efforts can reach the greatest number of young people; therefore, examining the educational environment is critical.


There are a number of indicators of the value placed on education in the United States. News reports compare the scores of students in the United States and in other countries on tests in geography and spelling, math and science. These reports consistently favor students in other countries. They imply that learning in U.S. schools is somehow not quite up to par. Does a student’s ability to spell reflect his or her ability to think? Does recall of dates, locations, or facts indicate a student’s problem-solving skills? The answer to these questions is “No.” Learning is the act of acquiring knowledge or a skill through observation, experience, instruction, or study, yet these comparisons suggest a view of learning that reduces this complicated act to an isolated and mechanical process. In addition, these comparisons often fail to note that in the United States all children are expected to attend school through high school graduation, not just wealthy or middle-class urban or college-bound students.

How learning is valued is also reflected in the following statistics. In 2000, the average household income was about $55,000 (Census Bureau, 2001). Nearly 10 years later, the average teacher’s salaries was less than $54,000 (NCES, 2010). Schoolteachers and counselors, over 50% with master’s degrees, continue to be paid less than the national average and are poorly remunerated relative to other professionals. Low teacher salaries reflect the value society places on education and is one contributor to the current teacher shortage.

In response to the current shortage of teachers, many states are lowering teacher standards, with many new teachers not meeting state licensing requirements. During 1999–2000, more than 70% of the students in ESL/bilingual education classes had teachers without certification. In addition, 17% of high school physics students, 36% of high school geology students, and 29% to 40% of biology/life science and physical science students were being taught by teachers without certification (Seastrom et al., 2002). Students learn more from better teachers. Interestingly, more affluent schools attract teachers with greater academic skills (Wayne, 2002); a much greater percentage of teachers at poorer schools have poor academic and teaching skills. And the disparity between rich and poor schools is increasing (Berliner, 2001; Kozol, 2005). The richest school districts in the United States spend 56% more per student than the poorest schools. Economists, sociologists, and educators have known for decades about the link between the social and economic disadvantage and the student-achievement gap. To see real school reform, it is critically important to address the underlying social and economic conditions (Rothstein, 2004). Those schools serving large numbers of poor children are likely to have fewer books and supplies and more teachers with less training and experience. If U.S. schools are expected to combat the societal problems of at-risk students, we must commit to the education of our children and youth as our highest priority, which includes attracting and training enough qualified teachers and counselors, encouraging them to work in poor districts, and providing them with adequate compensation.

Federal funding and policies provide further evidence regarding society’s support of education. During Carter’s presidency, Congress elevated the subcabinet agency of education to the Department of Education (DOE). In the 1980s, the Reagan and the first Bush administrations insisted that the DOE bring about educational reforms by “leadership and persuasion”—not by new programs or funds. In fact, during every year of Reagan’s administration, educational funding was level or reduced for programs that provided aid for disadvantaged children, bilingual education, and work-incentive child-care initiatives; educational funding fell from 2.3% to 1.7% of the total federal budget (Carville, 1996). The expenditure per pupil (dollar level adjusted) in public schools rose very slowly during the 1980s and 1990s. The 1990s saw a disturbing trend in prisons versus education. For the first time, states spent more on prisons than on colleges: university construction funds decreased by almost a billion (to $2.5 billion), and corrections funding increased by almost a billion (to $2.6 billion; Ambrosio & Schiraldi, 1997). For example, the New York State prison budget increased by $761 million while the higher education budget dropped by $615 million And in California there was a 209% funding increase in the prison system budget, but only a 15% increase in state university funding (Taqi-Eddin, Macallair, & Schiraldi, 1998). The capital expenditure for a prison cell is $180,000; it costs $35,000 per year to house an inmate (Hora, Schma, & Rosenthal, 1999), a huge drain on public funds.

A society loses by producing nonproductive citizens. If schools do not provide a safety net for children, health and well-being are reduced. Investing in prisons instead of education and prevention is an expensive, wasteful, and failing long-term strategy. America spends more dollars on incarcerating nonviolent offenders than on welfare programs and considerably more than on child care. Although the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prisoners and the highest rate of incarceration in the world (Walmsley, 2011). Of the 10 million incarcerated people in the world the United States, along with Russia and China, are detaining almost half. Yet America’s children have greatly underfunded schools.

The publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) has led to three decades of public school education bashing and launched the high-stakes testing phenomena, in which consequences for not passing standardized tests include grade retention for the individual and decreased funding for schools that fail to achieve required pass rates (Amrein & Berliner, 2002). In The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner and Biddle (1995) provide convincing evidence of a political agenda underlying A Nation at Risk and present thorough and sound data indicating that public schools in the United States have done a marvelous job of educating American children. In fact, they demonstrate that children actually know more than earlier generations, compare very favorably to students educated in other countries, and perform better than ever before (see Box 5.1).

BOX 5.1: Separate and Unequal 15-Year-Olds

A new look at the literacy of teens living in the industrialized world shows that American students are about average. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” warns former Education Secretary Rod Paige. True enough—but Paige and the Bush administration miss the point. Hidden in those results is yet one more piece of evidence that American youngsters attend schools that are separate and markedly unequal.

The Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) seeks to understand what 15-year-olds in 27 industrialized nations learned in reading, mathematics, and science from school and non-school sources. PISA’s goal is to assess how well we teach youth to think and solve common, everyday problems in those three disciplines. With 85% of a student’s waking hours up to graduation from high school spent outside school, this is really a study of how well our society educates our young.

The answer depends on whether the teens are white, African American, or Hispanic. Overall, American 15-year-olds were close to the international averages in all three areas of literacy; about 10% scored in the top 10% worldwide on all three scales. The three tests correlated so highly that national scores on any one measure of literacy were almost a perfect proxy for scores on any other measure.

In reading, our strongest area, teens in only three nations—Finland, Canada, and New Zealand—scored significantly higher than ours; in fact, 81% of U.S. teens scored at levels two and above on a five-level reading literacy scale (with Level Five being the top).

This is noteworthy because of what PISA says a “Level Two” teen can do: make a comparison or several connections between the text and outside knowledge, draw on personal experience and attitudes to explain the text, recognize the main idea when the information is not prominent, understand relationships or construe meaning within a selected part of the text, and locate one or more pieces of information, which may require inferences to meet several conditions. Only 12% of our teens, those classified in Level One, cannot reach this remarkably high standard. Even among the least-literate teens classified at Level One, almost half were able to successfully respond to the more difficult items in Level Two.

On all three tests, our youth didn’t do badly overall—but we didn’t shine either. Why? The answer becomes clear when the scores of different 15-year-olds are viewed separately.

PISA clearly shows we have some ill-educated 15-year-olds, and most of those are poor and minority children. On the reading literacy scale white students in the United States are 2nd in the world, but African American and Hispanic students rank 25th; in mathematics white students are 7th, African American students are 26th; in science white students are 4th, African American and Hispanic students are 26th.

The unpleasant reality is that the United States runs separate and unequal schools and neighborhoods. The conditions of the schools and neighborhoods for our poor, African American, and Hispanic youth are not designed for high levels of literacy in reading, mathematics, and science. We accept poverty, violence, drugs, unequal school funding, uncertified teachers, and institutionalized racism in the schools that serve these children and in the neighborhoods in which they live. These unequal conditions appear to be the major reason we fall short in international comparisons. We combine the scores of these ill-educated children with those of children who enjoy better resources. As long as these differences are allowed to exist, we will rank about average in international comparisons.

As PISA makes clear, accepting deficient schools and troubled neighborhoods for our poor and minority students diminishes our international competitiveness. In ignoring these data about who does well and who does not, we diminish our moral authority in the world as well.

PISA exposes what we have known for too long: that we have social problems to which we pay scant attention. In every international comparison of industrialized nations, the United States is the leader in rate of childhood poverty. African American and Hispanic students attend public schools as segregated as they have ever been. Our poor and minority children are not getting the opportunities they need for the nation to thrive.

Politicians who spend their energy condemning the public schools for their supposed failure to educate American youth are ignoring what PISA tells the world: that we fail selectively, having organized our society to provide poor and minority 15-year-olds less opportunity to achieve. Shame on us.

David Berliner, Regents’ Professor

Emeritus Arizona State University

Tempe, Arizona

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002 was a sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and it redefined the federal role in K–12 education. Unfortunately, its promise to help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers was only moderately successful. NCLB contained four basic principles: stronger accountability for results (e.g., decreased funding for schools that do not meet pass rates for standardized tests), increased flexibility and local control, expanded school choice options for parents (e.g., parents can remove their children from failing schools), and an emphasis on scientifically supported teaching methods. While infusing resources to schools, there have been significant concerns about the effects of the NCLB Act. For example, even more funding is likely to flow away from those public schools in most desperate need (Pierce, 2002). Some argue that the NCLB act undermines support for public education (e.g., Meier, Wood, et al., 2004). Others raise serious concerns about accountability and the ways that the NCLB Act may diminish attention to both above and below average students (Goldhaber, 2002; Reville, 2002). Schools required to demonstrate improvement will do so most efficiently by focusing resources on those children who test just below the minimum pass rates. Those children who have very poor test scores are unlikely to raise scores high enough to increase the school’s pass rate, and those students with good scores are already part of the pass rates. Both the highest and lowest achieving students are less likely to receive support or services. While some aspects of NCLB continue, the Obama administration has introduced the Race to the Top (RTTT) Act designed to replace NCLB. RTTT program is designed to spur K–12 education reform and is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. RTTT goals are to improve student achievement, improve high school graduation rates, ensure postsecondary success, and close achievement gaps between best and lowest performing schools (USDOE, 2010).

Most teachers work hard, are concerned about children, and try to do a good job of teaching. Teachers know that all children need support, care, and nurturing. They also know that with the decline of economic stability, the pressures facing parents, and the fragmentation of neighborhoods and communities, the support and care children receive at school is even more critical. Teachers are expected to do more than ever before in classrooms that some find increasingly unsafe. Gang activity occurs around schools. School shootings leave teachers questioning whether such shocking violence could happen “at my school.” Of course for some, incidents of victimization lead to disenchantment and even departure from teaching (Smith & Smith, 2006; Dinkes, Kemp, & Baum, 2009). Amidst these concerns, teachers are constantly bombarded about how “teachers are not doing their jobs,” how “schools are inadequate and failing,” and how teachers must “do more with less.”

For public education to succeed, increased financial support is needed for struggling schools. More money is needed. School reform is critical to the development of more effective schools. However, reforming education is more than revising tests, rewriting curricula, and restructuring schools. Reform must include supporting the human resources on whom so much depends. Teachers and counselors and other people personnel must be better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, allowed to do what they were trained to do, and provided with the best methods and materials.


Variables in Research on School Effects

Researchers have identified a number of elements common to effective schools (Henry et al., 2009; Sadker, Zittleman, & Sadker, 2010). These can be classified into the general categories of leadership behaviors, academic emphasis, teacher and staff factors, student involvement, community support, and social capital.

Leadership Behaviors

Effective schools have autonomous staff management at the school site. Administrators, teachers, and counselors make many decisions about programs and program implementation without the need to seek approval of the school board or the district. Effective schools have a clear mission and place an emphasis on strong instructional leadership.

Academic Emphasis

Effective schools provide a rigorous curriculum. Students are expected to perform, and they are frequently monitored. Academic achievement is recognized on a schoolwide basis, instructional time is maximized, and the curriculum is consistently improved (Rumberger & Ah Lim, 2008).

Teacher and Staff Factors

Effective schools are characterized by collegial relationships among the staff, encouragement of collaborative planning, and low turnover among the faculty. Further, staff development is provided on a schoolwide basis.

Student Involvement

Students at effective schools tend to have a sense of community, a feeling of belonging, and a sense of safety at school (Khoury-Kassabri, 2011). They also are likely to have clear goals. Teachers and counselors work to help students feel connected. Student discipline is fair, clear, and consistent but not oppressive or punitive.

Community Support

The communities in which effective schools are located have high expectations of the schools and their students. Further, district support and supportive parental involvement are evident, and relationships between home and school are strong and positive.

Social Capital

Social capital, the network of relationships that surround an individual child, is important for development (Terrion, 2006). One of the major reasons some schools perform significantly better than others is that they are so rich in social capital (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987; Terrion, 2006). The nuclear and extended family, the neighborhood and church community, the social service agencies, and community organizations form a supportive enclave of adults who are united with school personnel around a system of similar educational beliefs and values. This network of relationships is extremely important to the education of all children. Improvements in social capital leads to reduced family stress, which results in improved child behavior. Most school systems are severely constrained today because of the general reduction of social capital in society.

Definitional Issues in Research on School Effects

Most research on effective schools—partly a by-product of the NSLB Act, measures effectiveness as students’ performance on standardized achievement tests, an extremely narrow view of learning. Other cognitive criteria, such as decision making and critical thinking, are largely ignored Most high quality knowledge cannot be measured by standardized, machine-scored tests (Wubbolding, 2007). To judge school effectiveness by the narrow criterion of scores on standardized tests pressures teachers and districts to carry out test-driven curriculum. It may not be helping the educational problem anyway. In one study examining a decade of data from 18 states that implemented high-stakes testing, Amrein and Berliner (2002) found that scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and the SAT did not increase after high-stakes testing was implemented, even when the high-stakes test scores increased. Scores on the ACT, SAT, and content measures stayed the same or actually decreased.

Results of research on school effectiveness must be viewed with caution. For example, schools with higher dropout rates potentially have higher test score averages than do schools that retain their lower achieving students longer. If effectiveness is judged by performance on high-stakes tests alone, a school that fails miserably with at-risk students by pushing them out may be deemed highly effective! Alternative indices, such as students’ involvement in the community, attendance rates, the incidence of school vandalism and violence, or dropout rates, are seldom measured in school effectiveness research but these indices may be more relevant to the school, community, and country. Another dimension of school effectiveness is school culture. School culture focuses on aspects of education more directly relevant to at-risk youth. Let us consider the Diaz family case study.

CASE STUDY: The Diaz Family

Enrique Diaz came to the United States from El Salvador some years ago when he was 23 years old. He was forced to flee El Salvador when his membership in a small labor union was revealed to the government authorities, and he left behind his parents, brothers, sisters, and extended family. He brought his sister’s 2-year-old daughter Ramona with him because the baby’s father had been killed for his labor union activity and his sister feared for her own life. A church group participating in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s provided Enrique and Ramona with shelter in a local safe house, as well as assisting Enrique in finding employment. Enrique works as a day laborer for growers and lawn maintenance companies. He met Alicia, a Mexican American woman volunteer at the safe house, during his first week in the United States. Alicia began spending a great deal of time caring for Ramona, and she and Enrique married 10 months after his arrival. One of the things that attracted Alicia to Enrique was the fact that he was a very hard worker and did not drink alcohol. Currently Enrique continues to work as hard as ever during the day, but he now consumes one or two six packs of beer most evenings. Alicia is the second child in a family of nine children. Her parents came to the United States from central Mexico as young adults. Alicia works as a motel maid and has a second part-time job doing custodial work at her church. Alicia and Enrique have raised Ramona, now 18, as their own daughter, and also have a son, Carlos, who is 13, and another daughter, Lidia, who is 5 years old. They live in a small rented home and maintain a very modest standard of living. Enrique became a naturalized citizen just before the birth of Lidia.

Enrique understands but does not speak English. Alicia was raised in a monolingual Spanish household but learned to speak English in school. Although her English skills are solid, she is very reluctant to use English unless she has to because she believes that she makes many mistakes and feels self-conscious about her accent. Both of the parents express concern about their children because family life is curtailed by the long hours the parents spend at work. They are especially concerned about their children’s educational problems. Neither parent completed high school; both desperately want their children to have a better life. They view education as a necessary step toward that goal. Their communication with the school system has been complicated by language barriers. In addition, Enrique and Alicia are convinced that the teachers think they are bad and uncaring parents because they have not learned enough English.

Upon entering kindergarten, Ramona Diaz was placed in an ESL (English as a second language) program. She was transitioned into an English-only classroom when she entered middle school because that was district policy; however, she did not seem prepared to enter this environment. Ramona associated only with other girls who were Spanish-language dominant and fell behind in all of her content areas. She resisted going to school, even skipping classes on occasion. In parent–teacher conferences, her teachers would consistently say that she was not turning in her homework, or would turn in work that was incomplete and inaccurate. Ramona would insist that she was turning it in but that her teachers were misplacing it and grading her unfairly because they thought she was “stupid” and didn’t like her. Enrique was enraged by Ramona’s attitude toward school, and they had explosive arguments two or three times per week, which were most likely to occur in the evening after Enrique had been drinking for several hours. Finally, at age 16, Ramona dropped out of school and began working five nights per week at ABC Burgers. Although Enrique and Alicia did not approve, they had felt somewhat out of control of Ramona and were unsure of how to help her in school. With Ramona out of the house at night, and because homework was no longer a constant source of tension, the fighting between Enrique and Ramona decreased. Enrique’s drinking did not decrease.

Ramona tells her parents that she will eventually earn her GED. Alicia is concerned that Ramona will become pregnant and be stuck in low-paying jobs for the rest of her life. She rarely sees Ramona. Ramona arrives home from work after her parents are in bed and is still sleeping when Enrique and Alicia leave for work in the morning. Alicia suspects that Ramona has a boyfriend at work, but Ramona denies this and is very closed about her social activities. She has been contributing to the family income and is affectionate with her brother and sister when she sees them. Just last week, however, Ramona told her parents that she had lost her paycheck and would not be able to help out the family until the next one arrived.

Carlos Diaz is in the seventh grade. He has had a solid relationship with his parents, particularly his mother. Carlos has been in a regular classroom for the past 2 years. He has generally done well in his schoolwork, but he is not a model student. He has often had trouble with his peers and at times gotten into fights on the playground. Since he has moved into junior high school, his social problems have decreased somewhat. He has several teachers now, and the classes are larger than those in the primary school. He has begun to make friends, although his lack of free time outside of school has made this difficult.

Because of Ramona’s job at ABC Burgers, Carlos has the responsibility of watching his little sister after school, and he has had difficulty completing school assignments. His after-school activities now include cleaning the house and helping to prepare dinner in addition to babysitting, so he has only a limited amount of time to complete the homework assigned by his five teachers. When his assignments require use of a computer, Carlos has to stay in from recess to use one at school because his family does not own one. Some nights he works on every subject for at least a short time, but on other nights he is able to complete an assignment for only one of his classes. At the time they entered counseling, Carlos was behind in every class and was falling asleep in school. Some of his teachers seem to think he is lazy, contrary, and unresponsive. Many of them seem frustrated that Carlos is not completely fluent in English “by now.”

Carlos’s social studies teacher, Ms. Bassett, has taken a particular interest in him. At first, she found him inattentive in class and unresponsive to her questions, and she assumed this behavior was a combination of language and lack of ability. She noticed, however, that when he did complete his homework it was usually well done and accurate. After consulting with the school counselor, she gave Carlos a more active role in his own education. She found ways to give him more responsibility for learning, provided a means for him to monitor his own progress, and generally encouraged him to be more active in learning. The counselor also suggested that cooperative learning groups might be especially beneficial to Carlos, not only academically but also as a means to help Carlos develop better peer relationships. Ms. Bassett is currently struggling with ways to modify her teaching style in a school that bases evaluations of her teaching on direct instruction, a method that typically works well for social studies recitation classes but fails to allow students to take an active role in learning. Enrique and Alicia view Carlos as a very responsible young man and hope that he will continue on in school. They are aware that he is under a lot of pressure at home and in school but do not seem to know what to do about it. In spite of their concerns, they have not responded to Ms. Bassett’s invitation to meet with them or talk on the phone. They seem to fear that she will be upset about Carlos’s caretaking role and that she will not understand their family situation.

Lidia Diaz is in kindergarten this year. Last year she participated in Head Start, which greatly aided her language skills and helped prepare her for kindergarten. In spite of this advantage, she is progressing quite slowly. She is one of 30 kindergartners in the classroom. Some of her classmates attended private preschools and can already read. To deal with the large number of students in her class, Lidia’s teacher groups the children according to their ability in reading and arithmetic. Lidia knows that she is in the lowest group in both subjects. Like her older sister, Lidia often feels stupid. Lidia’s teacher believes that Lidia has the potential for school success and wishes she could spend more time with her. Lidia’s elementary school has a retention policy for kindergarten students who do not make certain gains in achievement. In spite of her teacher’s belief in her abilities, Lidia fits the criteria for the district retention policy, and if things do not improve, she will probably be kept back next year.

© Cengage Learning 2013

School Culture

Every social organization has its unique culture, and schools are no exception. School culture is determined by student involvement, teacher factors, community support, curricular focus, and educational leadership—factors that also define effective schools. A culture provides its members with two things. First, it establishes a set of rules, expectations, and norms for members. Carlos’s teachers encourage an English-only norm. In Lidia’s school, retaining students who do poorly is the rule. Essentially, school culture provides an informal understanding of the way things are done. Second, culture can enhance self-esteem—or not—through shared values, beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies. Students, faculty, and staff who take pride in their school culture are likely to do better than those who do not. Many of Carlos’s teachers share negative views of bilingual education; Lidia’s feelings of stupidity are due in part to her exclusion from her school’s culture. Participation and attendance in school activities can greatly enhance school connectedness and pride. These activities are generally hard hit when resources are scarce, and even when available students such as Carlos are not able to take advantage of them. The culture of a school can be described in terms of student and teacher climate.

Student Climate

Several aspects of student climate relate directly to children and youth at risk. Children’s experiences with their peers provide them with an opportunity to learn how to interact with others, develop age-relevant skills and interests, control their social behavior, and share their problems and feelings. As children get older, their peer group relationships increase in importance. The child’s recognition of belonging to a group is an important step in development, and students with more friends at school feel more connected to their schools and generally have fewer problems (Karcher, 2004; SCDRC, 2010). But belonging to a group has both benefits and costs in the child’s subsequent social development and behavior. Many students who are at risk for school failure know early that somehow they are different from—less acceptable and less accepted than—other students. Lidia Diaz is one such student. Consistently grouping students by ability heightens such self-perceptions. Who of us did not know by the second grade which groups constituted the “good readers” and the “poor readers”? More important, the expectations of students depend somewhat on their group membership. Students who succeed in school have both high expectations of themselves and a strong, positive sense of belonging to the school community. Students who are at risk for school failure are often placed in the lowest ability groups and excluded from the academic success community. Exclusion from the school community limits the potentially positive effects of school culture on students at risk for failure (Sinclair, et al., 2002).

In addition to academically based groupings, student climate is influenced by the peer groups that students form. Peers influence one another by offering support, advice, and opportunities to discuss conflicting points of view, but peers may also negatively influence others by coercion and manipulation. Peer group pressure can be either a very powerful ally or a formidable antagonist, dissuading or encouraging problem behaviors (Roseth, Johnson, & Johnson, 2008). Behaviors such as misbehaving in class, fighting, arguing, victimization (Khoury-Kassabri, 2011), and neglecting to turn in homework all interfere with learning and are related to school failure. Students are more likely to drop out in schools with a poor disciplinary climate as measured by student disruptions in class or in school (Rumberger & Ah Lim, 2008). Carlos’s earlier playground fights demonstrate how poor decision making among students can hinder positive student climate. Efforts to improve students’ problem-solving and decision-making skills have a positive effect on the at-risk population (Shure, 2006, 2007; and see Chapter 13). Some schools have reported a marked reduction in disruptive behaviors after students have been taught to mediate disputes on their own. Significant benefits accrue when students teach and model social skills (Blake et al., 2000). The ability of students to solve their own problems and peacefully settle disputes directly and positively affects student climate. School mediation programs (discussed in Chapter 14) have been especially helpful in this regard (Jones, 1998; Lane & McWhirter, 1996; Smith & Daunic, 2002).

Peer Involvement

Because peers play such an important role in adolescents’ risky behavior, prevention and treatment efforts should focus not only on individuals’ problems but also on the peer group itself. Peer programs that emphasize training in assertiveness and other social skills have a good success rate (Herrmann & McWhirter, 1997). If these skills are not taught to the whole peer cluster (see Chapter 8), or if adolescents return to the same peer cluster after receiving treatment away from their peers, they often regress to past patterns.

Adolescent girls—especially those who are talented—experience decreases in self-confidence and more social anxiety than in earlier grades. Some have argued that there is an abrupt psychological shift at age 14 from needs for achievement to needs related to love and belonging (Neihart et al., 2002). Talented girls see more disadvantages to their abilities than do their male peers and, simultaneously, girls’ self-esteem plunges between ages 11 and 17. They perceive that their achievements will threaten boys; thus, they “dummy down” and hide their abilities. In addition, girls receive inequitable instruction in the classroom, less attention from teachers, less informative responses from teachers, less detailed instructions on the correct approach to tasks, and more reprimands for calling out answers to questions and other “assertive” responses.

Another group of students who are especially impacted by the climate of schools are those whose sexual identity or sexual orientation do not conform to strict heterosexuality (Russell & McGuire, 2008). They are under consistent stress. Too often other students, and sometimes teachers, demonstrate nonacceptance, rejection, and hostility. In many ways school climate is particularly important for them.

Student climate is affected by students’ ability to monitor their own behavior and progress, take responsibility for their own learning, and contribute to the school community. Most learning research focuses on methods and procedures that increase desired student behaviors and center on strategies teachers and counselors can use (Farkas et al., 2011). More research is needed, however, on the ways teachers and counselors can modify the classroom environment and expectations in a manner that helps young people help themselves. At-risk youth are capable, thinking people who are able to see and monitor their own progress. They need to be taught how to do so. They need to be encouraged to develop a shared responsibility for learning.

Teacher Climate

The working environment for teachers and other school employees is also part of school culture. Levels of collegiality and collaboration among staff members, community support, autonomy, adequacy of funding, and the effectiveness of leadership all contribute to teacher climate within the school.

Consistent and focused meetings with teachers and support staff (psychologists, counselors, social workers) encourage stability, development, collaboration, and collegiality. Unfortunately, school personnel usually meet for curative rather than preventive reasons—ultimately a costly and inefficient procedure—largely because of heavy demands on their time combined with limited understanding of one another’s efforts and strategies. Moreover, they generally have no training in a collaborative, collegial model of working together to prevent problems. If Carlos’s teachers were able to work as a team, as middle school teachers often do, they might gain a better understanding of his previous bilingual problems and devise potential solutions. Models of shared decision making and leadership organized around shared values, commitments, and beliefs can make a dramatic difference in teacher climate. Box 5.2 illustrates one dimension of how teacher climates can vary.

BOX 5.2: Teacher Climate

One of the authors of this text had the experience of spending 15 minutes in two different middle school teachers lounges in the same week during a research project. The atmosphere within the two lounges could not have been more different and provided insight into the teacher climate at each school.

In the first lounge, five teachers were filling coffee cups, organizing papers, and chatting energetically about the events of the week. One teacher approached the author/researcher, asking her name and making introductions to the others. Entering teachers were greeted by name. There was some joking about the “mountains of grading” that faced several of them.

In the second lounge, two teachers were silently grading papers when a third entered and immediately began talking about a student using crude and insulting language. The other two teachers offered comparable stories about difficult students, also using language such as “asshole” and “bastard.” Then the third teacher stated, “God I can’t wait to retire” and left the room; the other two teachers returned to their grading. All three teachers completely ignored the author/researcher and did not make eye contact at any time.

© Cengage Learning 2013

When teachers are identified as professionals, the effect on teacher climate is positive. Unfortunately, it is frequently the case that teachers are not treated as experts on learning, pedagogy, and curriculum. Teachers have a base of professional knowledge, a professional language, and bring specific skills to their job. Yet teachers often are required to simply follow mandates regarding curriculum and pedagogy. Educational practices that stifle teachers from utilizing their knowledge produce a poor teacher climate and ultimately a poor student climate. This is true for school counselors as well.

There is a need for teacher empowerment in the workplace, particularly with regard to curriculum. Teachers’ knowledge about lesson preparation should prevail over the prepared lesson plans found in teachers’ manuals. Teachers are capable decision makers and need to be involved in school-based management. Team-teaching is another way in which teachers can contribute to high-performance schools. Teachers in the teams receive immediate feedback from one another. The team provides teachers with a support group to help resolve educational and behavioral problems.

How do schools typically respond to increasing incidences of disruption? Often, schools respond with “zero tolerance” policies, the addition of security guards and video cameras, and the suspension or expulsion of disruptive students. Although removing disruptive students from the classroom or the school provides some immediate relief to the affected teachers and students, these short-term policies have a series of negative consequences. They shift responsibility away from the school, reinforce antisocial behavior and an environment of control, devalue the adult–child relationship, and weaken the ties between academic and social behavioral learning. Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) is an alternative that involves a significant investment of resources and time, but it provides significant long-term benefits (Farkas et al., 2011). PBS is a systemwide approach to school behavior management that combines a system that supports teacher behavior with data that support effective decisions and practices that support student behavior. The purpose of PBS is to increase the effectiveness, relevance, and efficiency of academic and social learning for all students, and especially for those with emotional and behavioral problems by (1) increasing time devoted to teaching (instead of managing behavior problems) and (2) increasing students’ academic engagement time and achievement. That is, PBS changes individual behavior by changing the context in which behavior occurs. PBS establishes a schoolwide system for discipline with clear procedures and behaviors that are expected. There is a continuum of reinforcement for positive behaviors and a continuum of discouragement for negative behaviors. School staff are required to collaborate throughout the school (Farkas et al., 2011).

Initiating PBS requires a commitment of several years, with maintenance of the system a top priority. Other requirements include a team-based approach, active administrator support, proactive instructional approach, local behavioral expertise, and the use of data-based decision making. Implementation of PBS requires an enormous amount of time, resources, and energy. So why would a school select this intervention? Answer: Results. In one school, the average daily referrals in December dropped from 21 down to 6 per day the following December. Four years later the changes were maintained, with an average of 5 referrals per day in December with similar effects every month. The savings of time and energy that go into dealing with office referrals, as well as the increased satisfaction and security experienced by school personnel, are enough to convince many schools to adopt this program.


The structure of education can be manipulated at two levels: the school itself (grade configuration, type of building) and the classroom (the teacher’s philosophy and teaching style, the instructional method). Reform may be needed at both levels to optimize the academic success of students at risk.

School Structure

Grade configuration has been the primary organizing principle of our system. The rapid growth of high schools in the United States after the Civil War led some sections of the country to operate under an 8–5 schedule: eight years of elementary school, five years of high school. Other areas used a 6–6 plan: six years of elementary school, six years of high school. Toward the end of the century, the 8–4 pattern became popular. In 1909 the first junior high school was introduced. Since then, grades have been configured in a variety of patterns (6–3–3, 6–2–4, 7–2–3, 5–3–4, 4–4–4) in attempts to group students by developmental needs and to increase the cost-effectiveness of education. However, evidence (Bickel et al., 2001) contradicts the widely held notion that large schools serving a small range of grades are uniformly more cost-effective than single-unit (K–12 or K–8) schools. With respect to human costs, a larger size school is more damaging to disadvantaged students’ achievement. After an in-depth analysis of a variety of indicators, Bickel and colleagues conclude, “If we were also interested in balancing expenditure per pupil with achievement-based equity, the best configuration seems to be a small single-unit school…. This makes the achievement advantage of small schools (where they are most needed, that is, in impoverished communities) more affordable than previously expected.” It is important to engage in deeper level examination of issues such as cost-effectiveness, and to raise questions such as “beneficial to whom?” and “cost-effective with respect to what dimensions?” and “what dimensions have not been considered?”

The school-within-a-school concept is one way of structuring the school so that smaller groups of students are clustered together. For example, the school population of a specific secondary school is divided into four “houses.” These houses become the major vehicles for social interaction, intramural athletics, school activities, discipline, and so forth (think of the organization of Hogwart’s Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, featured in the popular Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling). The main reference group can be reduced in this way from, for example, 2,000 students in the comprehensive school to 500 students in the house, increasing the sense of community. Another example of school-within-school programs are high school Career Academies. They provide academic coursework and curricula based on a career theme with work experience available through employer partnerships. They show positive effects on staying and progressing in school for youth at-risk of dropping out (Kemple, 2004). Some schools build before-and after-school supervised programs into their structure (see Chapter 2). Youth without supervision after school and who are with peers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and to have poorer school achievement than youth who are with caretakers after school. In addition, there are significant benefits to participation in quality after-school programs (Durlak, Weissberg, & Pachan, 2010; Durlak et al., 2010). The demand for school-based after-school programs exceeds the supply, and even existing programs are constantly threatened by decreasing funds. After-school care programs could be of significant benefit to at-risk students like Carlos and Lidia Diaz.

School Choice

School choice has been offered as a solution to poor-quality schools. The proponents of school choice include political conservatives who view public education as overly controlled by the government, religious conservatives who view public schools as damaging to children because of exposure to immoral values and practices, private schools seeking increased enrollment, and activist, urban parents of color seeking a higher quality education for their children. Based on the belief that choice inspires competition and therefore higher quality, the school choice movement was supported by a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland school voucher program, which enabled students to attend private religious schools. In a study of the Milwaukee Public Schools (Witte et al., 2010), students who used a voucher to attend secular or religious private schools demonstrated no significant differences between math and reading achievement. The National Education Association, the National Association of School Principals, and the American Federation of Teachers maintain strong opposition to the voucher system, believing that the effects will damage public education by reinforce and replicate inequities for lower SES, ethnic minority, and poor achieving students.

Charter Schools

The charter school movement emerged from school choice and has expanded enormously: from 1999 to 2008, the number of students enrolled nearly quadrupled, to nearly one and a half million students (NCES, 2010). Although charter schools are public schools that offer a free education, they differ from district-controlled schools in that they are run by private organizations. Charter schools embody many different visions of school improvement.

Charter schools have the freedom to be innovative and to become a source of good ideas. Supporters view charter schools as a promising way to raise academic standards, empower educators, involve parents and communities, and expand choice and accountability. Despite these promising possibilities, the variation in characteristics has made it difficult to evaluate and compare their effects with one another and with traditional schools. Although in one study (Gleason et al., 2010), charter school students scored no differently on math and reading and they were no different on attendance, grade promotion, or student conduct than noncharter students. However, parent and student satisfaction showed significant positive results in favor of the charter schools. In another study (Tuttle et al., 2010), students had higher reading and math test scores than similar students in traditional public schools.

Charter schools have the potential to be an important educational innovation. However, the accessibility of charter schools must be addressed with respect to transportation, enrollment procedures, requirements, and a better understanding of who actually enrolls.

Classroom Structure

Classroom structure affects the academic experience of at-risk students. The structure of the class can give at-risk students a feeling of control over their situation. An environment in which students are treated as unique individuals who have unique contributions to make to the group yields positive results (Wubbolding, 2007). Such an environment produces an acceptance and appreciation of differences, an increase in creativity, an enhancement of personal autonomy, an improvement in mental health, and the ultimate overall quality of learning (McNeely et al., 2002). A caring relationship between adults and students helps meet the needs of at-risk students and is related to the classroom social climate established by the teacher early in the year (Mainhard et al., 2011).

Class size also affects at-risk students. There is strong evidence (Rumberger & Ah Lim, 2008) that small classes (15:1) in grades K–3 improve high school graduation rates. Certainly Lidia Diaz’s teacher would be able to meet Lidia’s needs more effectively if she were responsible for fewer children. Indeed, academic achievement and connection to school have been found to be related to class size (Finn, Gerber, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2005; Rumberger & Ah Lim, 2008). In fact, four or more years in small classes (13 to 17 students) in early elementary school significantly increase the likelihood of students graduating from high school. This is especially true for students from low-income homes (Finn et al., 2005).

Because Lidia’s class is large, students have been assigned to smaller groups based on ability levels. Although little advantage accrues to students assigned to the high groups, students assigned to the low groups suffer great disadvantage. Educational researchers now advocate smaller heterogeneous groups that work cooperatively in lieu of homogeneous ability groups working competitively (Roseth, Johnson, & Johnson, 2008). When teachers and students are encouraged to work collaboratively, there is a positive effect on the overall school environment (Reminger, Hidi, & Krapp, 1992). Students who are at risk for school failure are usually several grades behind their age mates; school structures that emphasize cooperation over competition meet the needs of these students better (see Chapter 14).

Curricular and instructional practices also affect students who are at risk for school failure. Students have little enthusiasm for a curriculum that focuses simply on learning facts and isolated skills and over time become passive players in the schooling process. Further, controversial and sometimes very interesting content areas are being omitted from the curriculum (Wubbolding, 2007). Educators, as well as the parents’, pass down the common values of society. Yet anything associated with “values clarification,” “values education,” or “morals” sets off alarm bells in some segments of the community. Many districts tightly regulate classroom discussion of topics such as sexual behavior and pregnancy prevention in an effort to avoid controversy.

Curriculum Issues

A curriculum that ignores moral education, development of social skills, student dialogue, and critical thinking does not help at-risk students. For example, making contraceptives available to teens and providing information about effectiveness has been criticized as contributing to sexual activity among teenagers. However, even though sexual activity among teenagers is approximately equal in the United States and Europe, the teen birthrate is much lower in Europe, where contraception is available. In the year 2000, a narrowly defeated bill in Oregon would have prohibited school discussion of safe sex activities that prevent AIDS because of the unsubstantiated accusation that such information “promotes homosexuality.” (We return to this important issue in Chapter 9.) The argument that children and adolescents should get their information at home is a hollow one in light of the vast numbers of families that do not provide this information at all.

Measures to assess the curriculum need to be broadened as well. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, assessment of student learning should go beyond scores on standardized achievement tests to include critical thinking, decision making, and other factors. As a result of reforms in several states, students are required to pass benchmarks throughout K–12 that include social skills, problem solving, and other important career and life skills. Passing benchmarks in mathematics requires, for example, not simply providing the correct answer but being able to describe the reasoning process used to arrive at the answer, and to identify alternative strategies for finding the answer. Connecting education to the world of work is a critical element for at risk youth and includes seven components (Bizot, 1999) that provide a connection: (1) develop a sense of competence based on genuine achievement via opportunities to attempt challenging tasks; (2) expose students to many areas of potential interest with the opportunity to develop some greater mastery; (3) foster an ability to set goals, generate alternatives, evaluate options and results, and cope with obstacles; (4) provide a framework for understanding and organizing occupational information; (5) convey respect for individual differences and an understanding of how individual values, interests, and skills lead to different choices, opportunities, and barriers; (6) provide for participation and opportunities to collaborate and contribute; and (7) impart an understanding that education and career are lifelong, ongoing processes. These key elements should be integrated into curricula. Perhaps if Ramona had been exposed to ongoing career education, and had a curriculum that made consistent connections between learning and life skills, she might have seen more benefits to staying in school. At a minimum, she may have had better-developed work and life skills when she did drop out. English as a Second Language (ESL), also known as English language learners (ELLs) or bilingual education programs, are also an important part of school curricula for students at risk. From 1979 to 2008, the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 9 to 21 percent or from 3.8 to 10.9 million (USDOE, 2010). ESL students continue to have disproportionately high drop-out rates and low graduation rates (Gil & Bardack, 2011). Given the shortage of ESL teachers with appropriate credentials, and the fact that they live in a district characterized by many poor families, it is likely that the Diaz children did not have qualified teachers when they were in ESL classes.

Under No Child Left Behind, federal funds support the education of English language learners (ELLs) with the rapid teaching of English taking precedence at every turn. Annual English assessments are mandated, and academic progress in English is expected. Even though the resources provided by NCLB are good news for schools with substantial numbers of language-minority students, the money is spread thinly—between more states, more programs, and more students. Although districts will automatically receive funding based on their enrollments of ELLs and immigrant students, the impact of federal dollars will be reduced, given the complexity and heterogeneity of the ESL population. They do not fit a single profile (Bardack, 2010). ESLs have different socioeconomic status, levels of language proficiency, academic experiences, and immigration history. A final curricular issue we consider in this section is access to the World Wide Web—the Internet. The information available to students and schools via the Internet is virtually limitless, and support services to assist teachers to incorporate this resource into their teaching are evolving rapidly.

Public schools have made consistent progress in expanding Internet access in classrooms. Now virtually all public schools in the United States have access to the Internet, most with broadband wireless connections. The ratio of student to computer was 12 to 1 in 1998, then 4.5 to 1 in 2003 to about 2 to 1 more recently (DOE, 2006). Thus computer access at school is nearly universal among 4th grade students (95%) and very high for the vast majority of 8th graders (83%). Home computer access in 2007 for 8th grade students indicates that 90% had a computer in the home, although as expected poorer children did not fare so well (Child Trends, 2008). When teachers are provided with the time and technological support to capitalize on the Internet, students benefit. And it is clear that access to and ability to navigate the Internet are critical skills for today’s young people. One of the primary functions of the Internet is for communication, and many proponents have convincingly described how the Internet expands the number of people with whom someone can be in easy communication. Options include e-mail, texting, instant messaging, blogs, online gaming, and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. The social benefits seem obvious. The Internet is a rich resource that allows a wide variety of activities ranging from information gathering to communications to game playing, to other forms of entertainment (Lenhart et al., 2007).

For some adolescents, the Internet relieves social anxiety and social isolation. However, Internet use raises some serious questions. Does use of the Internet decrease family communication? What happens to the size of the user’s social circle? Might the social media actually increase loneliness and depression? As children and youth experience increased access, it will be critically important to monitor the effects of Internet use on their social interaction with family and peers. Future research will need to investigate the combination of media–television, Internet, computers, cell phones, and so forth—influence the lives of adolescents, and how the media can be used in positive ways to improve health, education, and development of young people (Jordon, 2008).


Educators have control over some educational practices and policies and elements of school climate that may improve the learning potential of at-risk students. They can promote curricular and teaching practices that emphasize the entirety of students’ learning and development. Second, educators can increase collaborative efforts that encourage collegial support and collaborative decision making to improve school climate. Third, student empowerment can be promoted, and students can be helped to approach their work and their interactions with tolerance and democracy. Teachers and counselors can be excellent models of such practices. Finally, educators can assist in raising public awareness about the value of extended support for children and youth who are at risk. Collaboration with researchers to provide evidence of successful prevention and intervention programs (or evidence that programs are not working) is one way to help draw attention to what does and does not work. Researchers, in turn, must consult with teachers and other practitioners to draw educators’ firsthand classroom experience and wisdom into the development and implementation of prevention and intervention programs. Teacher expertise is a critical component of school-based programs that provide at-risk students with the skills and resources they need to be successful in school and in life.

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