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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Labels Preventing Students from Succeeding?

By Peter DeWitt — May 13, 2018 4 min read
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Labels play a big role in conversations at school. We have “struggling students,” “students who suffer from trauma,” “gifted students,” and “special education students.” On one end of the spectrum of conversations, labels are provided to get students the assistance they need to be successful, and are based on specific testing the student went through with a school psychologist or school counselor. On the other end of the spectrum, labels seem to put children in neat little boxes, and seem to benefit the adult in the classroom more than the student, because sometimes those labels are about getting the adult extra assistance or providing a paper trail just in time for high stakes testing.

Teachers have so many differently-abled students in their classrooms, and the labels of students in front of them. The labels that those students carry are supposed to work as beacons to help adults understand those students have special needs that may take “out of the box,” thinking. Labeling may be necessary for some students, and provide them with the interventions they need from professionals who help them best.

However, we seem to have lost a balance when it comes to providing a label, and knowing when that label needs to go away. Does the process of labeling students create a glass ceiling for those students? Are educators making sure that there is a balance between labeling students and making sure that label doesn’t hold those students back? Do they ask whether the label is given to help the student become more successful?

Stop Using the Label “Struggling Learner”
Labeling is a deeply complicated issue with many layers. There are students who have extreme needs and they need specialized assistance. Then there are other students who aren’t ready for the content being taught at the same time their peers seem ready, so they get the label that they are a “struggling learner,” simply because they are not ready.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers and leaders these days to make sure that curriculum is covered. There are instructional coaches and leaders who are sometimes put in the position of making sure that teachers at the same grade level are pacing at the exact same time. When students are falling behind that pacing, struggling is a word that is often used to describe them.

We need to minimize how often we do that.

In the recent Education Week article interviewing author Jacqueline Woodson, which you can read here, Woodson says,

Any kind of qualifier can be harmful because who we are is not static. Our abilities are constantly changing. What does it mean to be a struggling reader? I know if I was raised in this day and age, I would have been labeled a struggling reader. But what I know now is I was actually reading like a writer. I was reading slowly and deliberately and deconstructing language, not in the sense of looking up words in the dictionary, but understanding from context. I was constantly being compared to my sister who excelled, and it made me feel insecure. What gets translated is 'you are not as good,' and that gets translated into our whole bodies. That's where the danger lies.

Woodsen’s feelings about labels are supported by research. For example, in Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities (2013) Shifrer writes,

Poorer outcomes for youth labeled with learning disabilities (LDs) are often attributed to the student's own deficiencies or cumulative disadvantage; but the more troubling possibility is that special education placement limits rather than expands these students' opportunities. Labeling theory partially attributes the poorer outcomes of labeled persons to stigma related to labels.

Additionally, in Equity or Marginalization? The High School Course-Taking of Students Labeled With a Learning Disability Shifrer, Callahan, and Muller found,

Students labeled with an LD, with appropriate school supports, may have the potential to reach normative course-taking benchmarks. Yet our findings suggest that their course-taking outcomes are considerably poorer than those of students who are not labeled with disability but are otherwise similar. Even among students who performed similarly in early high school coursework and those with similar noncognitive skills, we found that students labeled with an LD lose ground in the completion of college preparatory coursework compared to similar unlabeled students.

And finally, in Resisting and Persisting: Identity Stability Among Adolescent Readers Labeled as Struggling, Glenn, Ginsberg and King-Watkins (2016) write,

Data also indicate that participants were especially vulnerable to school-ascribed reading identities they defined as negative. Given their presumptions of validity of school-ascribed labels, participants reported greater struggle in their attempts to persist in the self-construal of their desired identity conceptions in response to school rather than outside-of-school contexts.

Not Labeling Students?
John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has collected the largest analysis of what works in education, which involves over 300 million students. Hattie’s research involves over 1400 meta-analyses. A meta-analysis is a statistical approach that focus on influences on learning, and combines multiple individual studies that focus on that same influence (i.e. feedback, classroom discussion, reciprocal teaching, etc.). These studies that look at influences on learning are accompanied with an effect size. An effect size of .40 equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

In Hattie’s research, which involves over 251 influences on learning, Not labeling students has an effect size of .61. That is significantly over the .40 that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. What the research shows is that providing a label to a student in many cases creates a glass ceiling, which means that the student works to their label, and not always above it.

Is it possible that not labeling a student will help the student more than labeling them does?

In the End
Jacqueline Woodson brings up a good point when she says we should stop labeling students as struggling readers. However, that may the tip of the iceberg. Schools are often in difficult positions where they cannot turn back the hands of time and get rid of all labels, but as they move forward is it possible for them to take as much times as possible to discuss the pros and cons of giving labels to students?

As a teacher for 11 years and a principal for 8, one of the statements that always came up is that “If it’s good enough for a special education student, it should be good enough for any student.” What that means is that students shouldn’t need a label to get good teaching and impactful interventions that will help them become better learners. That impactful teaching should just be a part of their educational experience.

In your experience as a teacher, leader, parent or student...have labels helped or hurt you as a learners?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.