“At Risk” Students and Public Schools

“Cut the Crap” blogs expose language (some call it “educationese”) that obscures more than it clarifies. This blog cuts the crap about labeling students “at risk.”

We are all inadequate in some ways, so there is nothing inherently wrong with a term that says some students are “at risk” of failure. There is something inherently wrong, however, with a term that highlights student vices while hiding both their virtues and the vices promoted in public schools.

In Education Policy Brief (2009, V7, N4) Cable, Plucker and Spradlin go further by suggesting the label itself harms students:

Negative stereotypes are detrimental to students. A recognized quote by Robert Bierstedt depicts how students feel they are perceived by others has a very profound effect: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” Calling students “at-risk” may place students in more jeopardy than any other factors that may be harming them.

This blog cuts the crap about “at risk” students by putting its meaning in the context of the six-virtue definition of the educated person.

“At risk” crap #1 – Students are “at risk” of school failure because they score poorly on standardized tests (ignorance), skip classes (weak character), or don’t cooperate (selfish).

Cut the crap – Although schools don’t tolerate ignorance, weak character and selfishness, they tolerate, model and teach three other vices — intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. “At risk” students are those who don’t display understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride.

“At risk” crap #2 – Some alternative programs aim to return “at risk” students to regular school programs by re-doubling efforts to teach the public school combination of understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride. These programs rarely succeed because the adults in the lives of “at-risk” students have always modeled ignorance, weak character, and selfishness.  That is why teachers often say: “Now that I have met ‘Johnny’s’ parents, I know why he acts the way he does.”

Cut the crap – Regular public school teachers model and teach understanding, strong character and generosity as they overlook intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. Teachers in successful “at risk” programs do the same thing with different virtues and vices. They value student imagination, courage and humility, as they overlook ignorance, weak character and selfishness in “at risk students.”

When the six virtues define what it means to be educated, and when school personnel recognize both the virtues and vices taught in public schools, they know how to program for “at risk” students. It is simple. Educators should value “at-risk” students’ virtues and overlook their vices, just as teachers do for students who are not labeled “at risk.”

The Associated Press story about Chicago Urban Prep School for Young Men describes what that looks like:



#1 Terry Thomas on 01.25.11 at 8:37 pm

I really agree that just being labeled at risk in harms these students greatly. The vast majority of my students come to us conditioned to fail. They have never experienced anything in their school careers but failure. The only part of their lives that even remotely has been successful has been the criminal experience. Gangs thrive on this mentality. The gangs build these kids up with praise and rewards where the school system has done nothing but tear them down.

The biggest part of our job at the YDCs is to show these kids that they can succeed in the classroom. We start out showing them we do care and we do believe they can do it. I find the key is to start out with work that they can be successful with, no matter what the so called grade level is. I find it very disturbing that we must by law teach the standard course of study. How can a kid that reads on the 3rd grade level be successful in English I? Luckily our administration does not pressure our teachers with test scores and we are able to work with these kids on their level. More and more we are expanding the GED program and this semester we have actually enrolled two of them in college courses. It is really amazing to see how these kids can perform when they truly realize that they can do it.

#2 Casey on 01.26.11 at 9:43 am

Thanks for sharing your experience Terry.

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