A New Approach For Low Achievers

December 01, 1989 2 min read

Remedial education—long the prescribed treatment for aiding low achievers—has been rejected by one of the nation’s largest school districts in what some say may be the beginning of a trend.

In September, the Denver Board of Education approved an ambitious plan to raise student achievement by eliminating remedial classes at all grade levels and placing low-achieving pupils instead in regular classroom . The plan, approved unanimously, is part of a wide-ranging initiative that also includes revisions in curriculum, testing, and counseling services.

The proposal makes Denver the second large urban district to eliminate remedial courses. In 1987, the San Diego City Schools began a seven-year effort to phase out such courses in high schools and middle schools.

In addition, 40 schools nationwide, under the leadership of Stanford University education professor Henry Levin, are placing low-achieving students in accelerated classes.

The move away from remedial course work is spurred in part by a growing body of research suggesting that remedial instruction has failed to bring the performance of low-achieving students up to the level of their classmates.

In fact, says Levin, remedial course work tends to “slow kids down and get them farther and farther behind.’' His studies have found that disadvantaged students tend to be labeled “slow learners.’' As a result, he says, less is expected of them, and those low expectations become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.’' By the end of the 12th grade, Levin says, half of such students have dropped out of school, and the rest are four years behind grade level.

Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, predicts that other urban districts will follow Denver and San Diego, particularly if the federal government relaxes restrictions on Chapter 1--the nation’s largest remedial-education program--as President Bush and the nation’s governors proposed at October’s education summit in Charlottesville, Va. “You’ll see more and more of this happening,’' Husk says.

The purpose of the Denver initiative, according to Deputy Superintendent of Schools Evie Dennis, is to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge they need for college and the job market.

The plan immediately came under fire from teachers, who claim they were not involved in its development and warn that it may not be effective.

But Dennis, the initiative’s architect, insists that many of the ideas are based on “effective schools’’ research, which holds that all students can learn if schools raise academic expectations, define instructional objectives, monitor performance, provide strong leadership, and enlist community support.

Specifically, she asserts, eliminating remedial courses would raise expectations for students who would otherwise remain stuck in low-level course work for most of their academic lives. Schools will continue to provide remediation and special intervention “when the need is indicated,’' she says.

The eventual goal, she adds, is a 100 percent high school graduation rate. “People say, ‘Why not say 75 percent? That would be more realistic,” she notes. “But I say, ‘Do you want your child to be in the 25 percent who will not graduate?’

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as A New Approach For Low Achievers