Education Opinion

A ‘Culture of Concern’ Aids Academic Rigor

By Rafael Valdivieso — June 11, 1986 8 min read

The current drive for academic excellence, so widely hailed, is reaching an impasse. The convenient excuse, that we cannot instill rigor in our schools because it would push out minorities and the poor, has produced a system without rigor, and one that is increasingly without minorities and the poor as well.

To achieve both excellence and equity in our schools, we must change the way many schools are organized and operated. The drive for excellence and the reforms enacted in its name are not enough. This is a fundamental challenge for the reform movement, one that must be faced before genuine and continuing academic rigor can be achieved. And the challenge can be met only at the local level, school by school.

The reforms were needed because we had to raise our expectations for all students and what they can accomplish in school. But some observers believe that not all students can withstand a rigorous upgrading of schoolwork, that for them we must develop alternatives that will not hold back others capable of doing more rigorous work. This is the direction many policymakers are beginning to consider. A movement may even develop that proposes to add to the academic, general, and vocational tracks in the high-school curriculum a fourth track--alternative education--for dropout-prone students. Such dropout-prevention programs usually emphasize individual attention, training in basic skills, alternative- school practices, and small classes. Alternative education may indeed be needed as an interim solution. But we should not consider it a long-term solution.

At least three problems limit the adoption of alternative programs for at-risk students. First, unless society’s priorities are changed, the resources to implement such programs on a wide scale are not available. Ongoing appropriations, not just one- or two-time infusions of funds, would be required. Essentially, programs for dropouts and at-risk students are not preventive, but remedial or rehabilitative, and therefore costly (though not as costly as rehabilitative or interventionist programs at later stages of life). Second, while we know how to develop and make alternative programs work in individual settings, we have not developed administrative structures to initiate and sustain such programs on a wide scale. Third, as others have pointed out, are the distinct dangers in identifying potential dropouts, separating them from other students, and placing them in programs that differ markedly from the ordinary high-school experience.

What, then, can schools do to retain potential dropouts and help at-risk students achieve at the higher levels of which they are capable? While I cannot here comprehensively cover all aspects of reform, I can indicate and illustrate some principles for developing reforms to be implemented within the context of the whole school. These principles are: (1) a sharing by all students of responsibility for the well-being of the school; (2) demonstrated caring and concern for every member of the school community; (3) heterogeneous groupings (and elimination of tracking); (4) mastery learning; and (5) opportunities for advancement upon high-school graduation.

The states should set some universal standards and allocate resources, including technical assistance and research support, to localities, but then let local people--school personnel and citizens--work out solutions for local situations and problems. Only if a locality fails to carry out its responsibilities should the state move in. The same can be said for the responsibilities of school-district authorities. They should monitor and reward progress toward the targets and goals the individual school communities--including the faculty and the students--have developed for themselves within the larger framework of district and state goals. Like the states, they should provide resources, as well as the inspiration to improve.

Schools should adopt instructional styles that allow students to be active learners through participation, deliberation, and reflection. Likewise, students of high-school age need increased responsibility in self-government. They should be involved in setting standards and monitoring student behavior, and in helping each other in a variety of ways, including tutoring. What often is not understood about student cultures is that in the absence of a formal framework (legitimate in the eyes of both school personnel and students) with positive incentives for student leaders and groups, an informal system of competing leadership and groups evolves that may have positive or negative influences on the life of the school. Student responsibilities must be meaningful, involving real problems and real opportunities to improve school life.

The rationale for giving students such responsibilities is the need to foster relationships among students and between students and the school. A large student body can be a real barrier to developing such relationships if nothing is done to organize the school into mini-schools or “houses” under the same roof. Likewise, reducing class size not only helps teachers in managing instruction but allows more interaction between students. Recent research indicates that smaller schools and classes correlate better with lower dropout rates than do other general school characteristics. Within these small societies, all students can belong and participate in a variety of roles that are not usually academic but are nonetheless valuable.

Other examples illustrate how developing bonds among students can give individuals a sense of belonging and support. A Detroit program, ''Twelve Together,” organizes groups of high and low student achievers (together with two counselors). Group members pledge to help each other, especially those who fall behind, through all four years of high school. In another setting, all students in a Catholic high school in Newark, N.J., are selected by groups, composed of students with different abilities and interests, that compete with each other in a variety of areas, including attendance, community service, academics, and sports. After freshmen are selected for what they can contribute to the group, they remain with the same group and faculty adviser throughout high school. Such competition and cooperation inspire among group members enthusiasm, devotion, and a regard for each other and for the honor of the group. These groupings also help counter and overcome the often negative orientation of friendship groups, including gangs, developed outside the school. Such local groups can create havoc in and around a school, and some students try to escape by attending schools outside their neighborhoods.

Not until a school has an orderly climate and the beginning of a visible school “culture of concern” for everyone can the faculty begin to raise academic standards and expect greater efforts to learn on the part of all students. And it is important that students be able to excel in nonacademic areas, for the self-worth derived from such experiences often stimulates better schoolwork or compensates for a lack of academic abilities.

As for the curriculum, every student should master a core of academic content requirements. The learning tasks need to be defined and structured to make clear what is to be accomplished by the students. If a student requires more time and help to master the material, that time and help can take the form of peer and volunteer tutoring, after-school sessions, intensive summer programs, or a portion of another school year if necessary. But taking more time to accomplish the tasks must not be seen as abnormal or as punishment. No student should be made to feel inferior.

The core curriculum also should contain a vocational content requirement. Colorado, for example, has initiated an “Employability Skills Project” aimed at developing basic entry- level jobs skills in every high-school graduate. Note that this project is not an alternative program for only selected students.

Finally, at-risk youths from poor and working-class backgrounds need active encouragement to stay in school through a variety of incentives and support. For example, volunteers in Atlanta’s “Adopt-A-Student” program work with juniors and seniors in the lowest quartile of their classes. The volunteers encourage them to complete school, set career goals, improve academic performance, enhance job skills, identify job interests, and work out plans for getting a job, going on to postsecondary education, or pursuing a military career. After the students graduate, the volunteers continue to work with them until they reach their goals. Eighty percent of the students in the program have been helped to obtain employment after graduation.

As part of New York City’s new dropout-prevention program, every freshman this past September received a certificate of admission, redeemable upon graduation, to a college of City University. In addition, efforts are under way to pledge jobs in the private or public sector to these 9th graders if they complete high school. The Boston Compact, composed of businesses and other interests, has such an arrangement with the Boston schools, and already it has met with success. The promise of a job upon graduation has been found to be a powerful inducement to stay in or to return to school.

Potential dropouts, then, need a well-defined academic program and smaller, more cohesive school units that integrate social supports. Already, some local communities and school personnel are working together to change schools into small, humane societies in which respect, caring, learning, and effort are valued and practiced by everyone. And, in turn, businesses in some communities are developing opportunities for meaningful employment and post-high-school education for all who graduate. This three-pronged partnership-- schools, communities, and the private sector--can solve the dilemma of achieving both excellence and equity.

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 1986 edition of Education Week