Stanford Professor To Speed Up Learning for the Disadvantaged

By Lynn Olson — March 30, 1987 6 min read
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Disadvantaged students fall further behind in school as they get older because educators are concentrating on remediation instead of providing an accelerated, enriched learning environment, a professor of education at Stanford University argues.

Henry M. Levin estimates that as many as one-third of American students are “disadvantaged” as a result of poverty and cultural factors that limit their academic progress.

But despite more than 20 years of federal and state initiatives designed to address the needs of such students, he says, gains in their achievement have been marginal.

The problem, he argues, is that schools assume that they need to “slow down” instruction for “at risk” children and do not set deadlines for helping them “catch up” with their peers.

The unintended consequence, according to the Stanford professor, is that many disadvantaged students are labeled as “slow learners.”

Expectations for them are reduced, he says. And they are deluged with worksheets and drills that would stifle any child’s love of learning.

Beginning this fall, Mr. Levin proposes to turn that approach on its head.

Working with two elementary schools in the San Francisco Bay area, he will attempt to “speed up” the education of disadvantaged youngsters and to make their schooling as exciting as possible.

His goal is to bring the achievement of such children up to grade level by the end of the 6th grade.

‘Educational Mainstream’

“To me,” Mr. Levin says, “what is meaningful is to bring these kids into the educational mainstream and, ultimately, the social, political, and economic mainstream.”

“Simply raising performance from the 15th to the 20th percentile doesn’t do that,” he notes. “It’s statistically significant, but that does not mean that it’s socially significant.”

Mr. Levin has been interested in the education of disadvantaged youngsters since the 1960’s, when he was studying the economics of education as a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Since then, he says, a number of instructional approaches have been developed for at-risk students--including peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and the use of computers.

The problem, Mr. Levin says, is that no one has combined these approaches in one school--or dedicated an entire school to the instruction of poor and minority children.

“The knowledge base is there,” he argues. “We can’t use that as an excuse any more. It’s a matter of going out and doing it.”

He has become particularly concerned about the problem in the past few years, he adds, because so much of the education-reform movement has focused on college-bound high-school students.

The problems of poor and minority elementary-school students have been virtually ignored, he says.

Majority Minority

Most of the children in both schools with which Mr. Levin is working--Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco and Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City--are minority students.

More than 90 percent at Hoover are Hispanic. At Daniel Webster, Mr. Levin says, about 27 percent of the students are Hispanic, 31 percent are black, 17 percent are Chinese, 9 percent are “other whites,” and 5 percent are Latino, with the remainder belonging to such ethnic groups as Japanese, Korean, and Pacific Islander.

“We don’t have all the answers on implementation,” he says. “In a sense, the schools are going to show us effective ways of implementing these ideas. It’s really collaborative.”

‘Accelerated Schools’

In the “accelerated schools,” Mr. Levin says, the stripped-down, remedial curriculum typically offered to disadvantaged youngsters will be replaced with one heavily weighted toward the use of language--emphasizing reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Teachers will be encouraged to make education “meaningful” to children by relating it to their daily lives.

In addition, the schools will emphasize “diagnostic” assessments to let teachers know how their students are progressing, and what they can do to help.

“We want to make sure that these kids are progressing at the rate of more than a month for every month that they’re in school,” Mr. Levin explains, “and so we want to keep tabs on them.”

“We’ll have trajectories for kids,” he adds, “and we’ll know that by 3rd grade, they should have made up, hypothetically, half of the achievement gap.”

Parent Involvement

Equally important, Mr. Levin argues, the schools will encourage parents to become involved in their children’s learning.

“There are a lot of resources that parents have that educators can’t duplicate,” he explains. “If a parent takes an interest in the work of his or her child each day and asks how school is going, or really praises the child when the child is doing well, or makes sure that the child gets off to school on time and is prepared--you can’t pay for those things.”

“There are a lot of things that these parents can give their children,” Mr. Levin adds, “even though they are not necessarily the things that middle-class parents can.’

He proposes, for example, that the parents, children, and school officials sign written contracts agreeing to fulfill certain responsibilities.

Parents, for instance, would agree to ask the child about school each day; get the child to bed by a reasonable hour; limit the amount of television that the child watches; and set aside time for reading.

Children would agree to attend school every day, do their homework, and participate in the school program.

And the school would agree to keep in touch with the parent, make school an exciting place for the child, and keep track of the child’s progress.

Such written agreements would have a strong “symbolic” value for parents, Mr. Levin argues, by indicating that the educational commitment is a serious one. Eventually, he adds, he would like to provide parents with training to encourage them to participate more deeply in the school program. And he would like to encourage educators to meet with parents on their own grounds, such as in the housing projects where they live.


Finally, Mr. Levin wants to shift the governance of the “accelerated schools” to the teachers and the school staff.

Unless teachers are treated more like professionals and take “ownership’ of the school’s mission, he argues, long-term changes will not occur.

Teams of teachers at the two schools with which Mr. Levin is working are developing plans for a redesign of their programs, beginning this September.

Mr. Levin anticipates that it will take five to six years to put all the components of an accelerated school in place. But he is asking each school to begin setting priorities now.

During a one-week workshop in August, teachers at the two schools, district administrators, and representatives from regional educational laboratories will help the schools complete their plans for the fall.

Stanford’s role will be to provide the schools with technical assistance and information, he says.

In addition, Mr. Levin and his colleagues at the Stanford School of Education are preparing seven background papers on particular problems that the schools will have to tackle, such as parental involvement, language, assessment, mathematics, and writing.

The project is being financed by a $13,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation, $5,000 from the San Francisco Foundation (to provide substitutes and release time for teachers at the Daniel Webster School), and $24,000 from the Packard Foundation.

Mr. Levin has also applied for a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to sponsor a conference on accelerated learning in the fall of next year.


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