ERIC Identifier: ED316617
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Pallas, Aaron M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Making Schools More Responsive to At-Risk Students. ERIC/CUE
Digest No. 60.
Current approaches to educating at-risk students are the result of several
shifts in thinking over the last 35 years. Now, a new way of defining at-risk
students is needed for changes in school policy and practice to better meet
these students' needs.
Past Definitions. Earlier, risk was
considered the result of only a single factor in a youth's life. Over time,
policymakers and educators have identified different factors as the factor.
Thirty years ago, the problems of school-aged children were attributed to
cultural deprivation. As an antidote, children were provided with preschool
compensatory enrichment that attempted to create a middle-class culture for
Subsequently, educational deprivation was considered the primary cause of
at-risk status. Resulting educational programs focused on K-12 education, and
the lack of fit between poor, minority children and their schools.
Another cause for at-risk status was thought to be the failure of all social
institutions charged by society with educating youth. All youth were considered
at risk because families, communities, religious organizations, and work places,
among other institutions, failed to help individuals achieve their full human
potential (Fantini & Weinstein, 1968). This definition suggested the need
for basic restructuring of all the social institutions that educate youth.
A final definition of at-risk status is the probability that a student will
fail academically, and/or drop out of school. This concept has been
operationalized by identifying subpopulations likely to perform poorly or drop
out (i.e., students retained in grade). Programmatic responses involved
provision of early identification and intervention.
A New Definition. None of the earlier perspectives on at-risk youth conveys
precisely enough the full complement of factors that put a student at risk.
Since education is a process that goes on both inside and outside of schools,
schools are just one of several social institutions that educate--or can fail to
educate--our children. Families and communities, along with schools, are the key
educating institutions in our society. Any definition of risk needs to be
sensitive to these other educating forces.
Thus, young people are at risk, or educationally disadvantaged, if they have
been exposed to inadequate or inappropriate educational experiences in the
family, school, or community. This definition is intentionally vague about what
constitutes "inadequate" or "inappropriate" experiences, as it would be
difficult to secure agreement on what would be adequate or appropriate. Still,
it provides some broad guidance for assessing the extent to which children can
be described as educationally disadvantaged or at risk.
POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF THE NEW DEFINITION
definition of risk presented above is sensitive to the match between individuals
and their environments, without becoming bogged down in fingerpointing over
where the blame for a bad match lay. Acknowledging the three sources of
influence--school, family, and the community--highlights a critical weakness in
most programmatic approaches to serving disadvantaged youth. Concerned solely
with changing schools, most programs ignore the impact of the community context
or family environment on a child's academic development.
Early intervention programs that are discontinued once children are brought
up to par in school are inadequate in the face of the ongoing effects of the
school, family, and community. What is needed instead are programmatic
strategies that serve at-risk children all through their school careers.
INDICATORS OF RISK
The five social factors discussed below
are associated with a youth's exposure to inadequate or inappropriate
educational resources and experiences. While these factors do not automatically
condemn a youth to school failure, the presence of one or more increases its
Poverty. Poor children are more likely to perform poorly in school and to
drop out than children from higher income households. More than 12 million
children under the age of 18--or one in five children--were living in poverty in
1987 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1988). Black and Hispanic children are three to
four times more likely to live in poverty than non-Hispanic white children.
Race and Ethnicity. Black and Hispanic students frequently score lower on
tests than do whites, and are more likely to drop out of school than are whites.
About 19 million children under age 18 were black, Hispanic, or Asian or Pacific
Islanders in 1988.
Family Composition. Children growing up in single-parent households
frequently spend much of their childhood in poverty (Ellwood, 1988). They score
lower on tests than do children living in two-parent homes (Natriello, McDill,
& Pallas, in press). More than 17 million children under age 18 lived in
households without both parents present in 1988 (U.S. Bureau of the Census,
Mother's Education. Highly educated mothers provide children with educational
resources that less-educated mothers cannot; their children do better in school
and stay there longer than do the children of mothers who have not completed
high school. Nearly 13 million children aged under 18 in 1987,
disproportionately black and Hispanic, lived with mothers who dropped out of
Language Background. Children with limited proficiency in English, and living
in homes where English is not spoken, face barriers to success in schools in
which English is the language of instruction. Various estimates suggest that
anywhere from 1.2 million to 2.6 million children had limited proficiency in
English in 1986.
THE DISTRIBUTION OF AT-RISK YOUTH
Current Distribution. The
highest concentrations of at-risk children are in urban centers and rural areas.
The poverty rate for children is about 31% in the central cities of metropolitan
areas, and about 24% in rural areas (Natriello et al., in press). Children in
central cities also are more likely to live in single-parent households (U.S.
Bureau of the Census, 1986), to have poorly-educated mothers, and to live in
homes where English is not spoken (Bruno, 1984; Milne & Gombert, 1983).
The regions of the country with the highest proportions of children at risk
of school failure are the South and the Southwest. They include a substantial
share of the nation's black and Hispanic populations. Poverty rates are somewhat
higher there, and levels of educational attainment are noticeably lower.
California, Texas, and New York contain more than two-thirds of the population
of limited English proficient children (Milne & Gombert, 1983).
Trends. Using the five factors discussed above as indicators, roughly 40
percent of the school-aged population can currently be considered at risk. This
proportion--and the overall number of at-risk youth--are almost certain to
increase, if, as anticipated, the fertility rate of whites continues to decline,
Hispanic fertility and immigration maintain their high levels, and blacks and
Hispanics continue to be disproportionately poor. Barring any dramatic changes
in U.S. society, the school-aged population of the future will be more at risk
than the school-aged population today.
MATCHING STUDENTS AND SCHOOL
The working definition of risk
outlined above emphasizes the match between individuals and their educational
environments. In this view, the problem of restructuring schools to meet the
needs of at-risk students is one of developing an environment, programs, and
services that will provide them with appropriate educational experiences.
Making schools more responsive to at-risk students is extremely difficulty
for several reasons. First, all students bring with them unique family
backgrounds and school experiences that result in different educational needs.
Second, schools are held accountable for a diverse array of goals, ranging from
teaching basic skills to preparing youth for work. Third, the economy is
demanding a larger pool of highly skilled workers. Fourth, schools will need to
educate more at-risk children. Finally, there no best way to educate children,
and a great deal of trial and error is still involved.
To make schools more responsive to at-risk students they must have the
appropriate academic and nonacademic programs and services for students. Then
they must correctly match students with these programs, and do it quickly,
before serious education problems fester and become uncorrectable.
Bruno, R.R. (1984). Educational attainment in
the United States: March 1981 and 1980 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current
Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 390). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Ellwood, D.T. (1988). Poor support: Poverty in the American family. New York:
Fantini, M.D., & Weinstein, G. (1968). The disadvantaged: Challenge to
education. New York: Harper & Row.
Milne, A., & Gombert, J. (1983). Students with a primary language other
than English: Distribution and service rates. In K. Baker & A. DeKanter
(Eds.), Bilingual education (pp. 113-138). Lexington, MA: Heath.
Natriello, G., McDill, E.L., & Pallas, A.M. (in press). Schooling
disadvantaged children: Racing against catastrophe. New York: Teachers College
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1989). Marital status and living arrangements:
March 1988 (Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 433). Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1988). Money income and poverty status in the
United States: 1987 (Advance data from the March 1988 Current Population Survey)
(Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 161). Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office.