Teacher Preparation Opinion

At-Risk Learners— An Insider’s Perspective

By Donna M. Marriott — February 21, 2001 12 min read
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My course in statistics taught me the other side of the story about at-risk learners.

Statistically, demographics set me up for school success. I am the daughter of white, middle-class, well-educated parents who reside together in an overpriced home in the suburbs. My learning profile matches the institutional expectations of a “good” student. I am organized, cooperative, and reasonably intelligent. I was made for school. School was made for me. Sadly, there are many students for whom these words do not apply. And statistics would play a pivotal role in shaping my professional awareness of the ways in which schools systematically rationalize such failure. No one was surprised when I enrolled in a doctoral program. After all, the system is designed to offer people like me continuing paths to ever-higher educational opportunities. My family and friends expected that I would take full advantage of this chance to advance myself. There was just one flaw in my otherwise bright future: Applied Statistics and Quantitative Research Methods.

The summer of my statistics course was neither easy nor pleasant. I suffered through serious bouts of anxiety, humiliation, confusion, and immeasurably low self-esteem. Through sheer determination, I got through the course. But I learned much more than hypothesis testing, correlation coefficients, and the ins and outs of the two-way analysis of variance (also known as ANOVA). Statistics forever changed my understanding about what is means to be an at- risk learner.

Educators easily and routinely explain the plight of low- achieving students: Her parents never help with the homework. She doesn’t participate in class. She’s a behavior problem. She needs to be tested for special education. She would do better in a remedial class. The bottom line is, she just doesn’t try. Well, you know how it is with those kids.

These responses to institutional failure are unfair, untrue, and self-serving. My course in statistics taught me the other side of the story.

  • Her parents never help with the homework. My family wanted to help me with homework. My son is a mathematical wizard. Though he had never taken a statistics course, he was able to scan the chapter, look at an example or two, and grasp the concept. However, he had no idea how to convey the concept to me. Repeating a formula louder or slower did not make it any more comprehensible. Showing me a series of shortcuts to expedite a procedure did not make it any more comprehensible. Demonstrating how to program a graphing calculator to process a complicated equation did not make it any more comprehensible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help—he didn’t know how to help.

My husband also wanted to be supportive. He would read the chapter with me and try to work through the formulas and processes. But he had never taken statistics, and he had a business to run. One day he asked me, out of frustration and concern, “Isn’t the teacher supposed to explain this?”

Though my family lacked the knowledge base, the pedagogical strategies, and the time to help me, it would be grossly untrue to suggest that they didn’t try, or worse, that they didn’t care.

Yet, this allusion to uncaring, nonsupportive parents is inherent in the supposition, “Her parents never help with the homework.”

Teachers are, largely, both demanding and unforgiving of parents. Assignments, projects, and weekly packets are sent home with the absolute expectation that students will get whatever help they need to complete the task accurately, on time, and neatly. But teachers offer little to help families accomplish these tasks. Parents may lack the academic knowledge. Parents may lack the teaching skills. Parents may lack the content-specific language. Parents may lack the time. It’s unfair to suggest that parents don’t want to help. The truth of the matter may be that they simply can’t help.

  • She doesn’t participate in class. It’s true. I didn’t participate in class—ever. I sat in the corner all summer hoping, and sometimes actively praying, that I would not be called on to answer a question. I learned to never have eye contact with the professor, to appear to be taking copious notes whenever a general question was asked, and to quietly fade into the background. I couldn’t participate. I was too fearful and too lost.

There are equity issues inherent in classroom participation. I’ll never forget that smart guy who sat in the front row. He would shout out answers before I could even process the question. The professor would praise him time and time again for his quick and insightful responses. And time and time again, I felt dumb, intimidated, and frustrated. The “smart” guy robbed me of the time I needed to participate. It wasn’t fair. After a while, I lost interest in participating.

There are equity issues and cultural expectations inherent in classroom participation.

There are also cultural expectations inherent in classroom participation. The professor allowed me to engage in my disappearing act. She did not speak a single word to me all summer. I’m sure she didn’t know my name, background, distress level, or my commitment to success. Somehow, early on, the professor and the other students determined who would be the participants and who would be the nonparticipants. It was a mold that once cast was difficult to reshape.

As a teacher, I had been trained to be sensitive to at-risk learners—to respect the time it takes for some children to acquire the comfort level to become participants. Statistics taught me a profoundly different lesson. Children who don’t “get it” need to be actively re-engaged—safely, immediately, continually, and in many different ways. We don’t do any favors to allow students to become passive nonresponders.

  • She’s a behavior problem. I quickly found the other three at-risk learners in my class. I don’t know how we did this exactly. It may have been body language, a far-away look in the eyes, or some chemical reaction to a shared sense of fear—but, by the first coffee break, I had found my “friends.” If we had been 8-year-olds, we would absolutely have been behavior problems. Since we were far older than 8, we misbehaved in very grown-up ways. We joked about the class over lattes at the break. We discussed the absurdities of statistics through our e-mails. We exchanged knowing glances during class every time the smart guy showed off.

My behavior caused me to look at my own students with a new, informed sense of personal responsibility. If a child starts to act up, I have learned to ask myself: “How have I failed this child? What is it about this lesson that is leaving her outside the learning? How can I adapt my plan to engage this child?” I stopped blaming my children.

  • She needs to be tested for special education. I am of normal intelligence, yet math has, sadly, never been my thing. I have not had a math class since I struggled through high school algebra and geometry. Because I am system-smart, I managed to get through a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a teacher-preparation program without ever taking a math course. It’s not something I am proud of, but I learned to effectively work around my mathematical deficiencies—in school and in life. Keeping up in a doctoral-level statistics class was an enormous leap for me. I don’t think the disparity between what I knew and what I needed to know qualified me for special education. I think the disparity was the result of consistently low expectations and inadequate preparation. I learned my learning disability.
I belong to the camp that believes all children can learn.

There may be some students with “real” rather than acquired disabilities who are unable to learn in a mainstream environment, though the more I teach and learn, the less I believe this to be true. I belong to the camp that believes all children can learn. While I admit that some will find this a radical thought, I believe that my job as a teacher is to teach the children in my class—all of them. I don’t send my children off to the specialists when they are having trouble, though I would not hesitate to ask a specialist to help me identify some teaching-learning strategies. If we really believe that all children can learn, then we must be ready, willing, and able to design whatever array of strategies will help students succeed. Teaching just the easy kids should not be tolerated.

  • She’d probably do better in a remedial class. I considered the notion of tracking throughout my statistics course. All the doctoral students were placed into the same class. The class included math teachers, business executives, and people like me who had not had a math course in many years. My learning needs were dramatically different from those of the gentleman in the second row, who was on his third statistics course because he thought it was “fun.” Would I have done better in a statistics-for-dummies class?

I have stood against any sort of academic tracking since I began my teaching career. In fact, I have consciously and conscientiously sought to create classrooms that were as heterogeneous in their composition as it was in my power to make. I created a multiage, full-inclusion classroom that included every group and subgroup that our field has named to date. Yet, within this diverse composition, I have consistently sought to offer children access to learning in ways that reflected individual learning needs, strengths, and interests.

I didn’t need a remedial-statistics class, but I certainly needed something beyond the lecture-style format. I was hopelessly lost in the context of the class. It was only in the small study sessions organized by an infinitely patient tutor that I began to make some sense of the content. The implications for classroom teachers are powerful. Whole-group formats systematically omit many learners.

  • The bottom line is, she just doesn’t try. I don’t think anyone could have tried harder than I did. There were all-nighters, study-group meetings, consultations with the tutor, and computer-lab sessions. My enormous effort was unseen by the professor and the majority of my classmates. Nevertheless, my effort was real. It is easy and tempting for teachers to use their limited view of a student to make sweeping generalizations: “She doesn’t try.” “She’s lazy.” “She’s not interested.” Effort is a tricky thing to see and evaluate.

How do we assess a student’s interest in learning? I guess it would be fair to say that I didn’t “care” much about statistics. Statistics is a fairly remote need in my life, work, and range of interests. But while I may not have cared much about the subject, I cared very much about succeeding in the class. Statistics was a required course. There was absolutely no way in the world I would have allowed myself to fail.

It was my own advocacy that got me through the course. I sought the extra help that I needed. I adapted my schedule to allow time for study. I bought and used supplementary materials. Failure was simply never an option. Who plays this advocacy role for our at-risk kids? Who helps them see how a particular concept, course, or program plays out in the bigger picture of their education or their lives?

I don’t think anyone could have tried harder than I did.

Who shows them the web of safety nets that can be constructed to prevent failure? Who intercedes on behalf of the 8-year-old child who is two years behind in reading and whose teacher has publicly said, “Oh well, you can’t save all of them”? Who holds on to the spirit of at-risk students and tells them that failure is simply not an option?

  • Well, you know how it is with those kids. In my case, being one of “those” kids meant being a woman. The men in the classroom, without any overt or conscious malintentions, formed themselves into the coalition of the haves, while the rest of us became the have-nots. I doubt that these men realized how their words and actions demeaned me as a woman. However, I take no solace in their unknowing. While much of the sexism, racism, and classism exists in the fringe of our consciousness, the pain and damage it causes is no less real.

I grew up in a time when girls didn’t need to be good at math. My brother was great at it. I was not. This was acceptable to my family, my teachers, and to me. No one ever believed that I should be good at math. Had this not been the expectation, I might be writing a different story today.

We need to move beyond the excuses that have become our field’s self-defeating conventional wisdom. In an era when many are looking to standards-based reform to raise student achievement, helping all students succeed may move from an ethical issue to a job requirement. It used to be that student achievement was a variable. Some students excelled, many students got by, and some students failed. The advent of student academic standards reaches deep within our profession to challenge this norm. The expectation now is that all students will meet or exceed the academic standards—no exceptions, no excuses.

If student achievement is truly to be redefined as a constant rather than a variable, we have the obligation to re-examine the array of conditions, contexts, attitudes, and excuses we have come to accept as educational norms.

If student achievement is truly to be redefined as a constant rather than a variable, we have the obligation to re-examine the array of conditions, contexts, attitudes, and excuses we have come to accept as educational norms. If a student needs more time to absorb a concept or develop a skill, we need to figure out ways to provide that time. If a student needs a different instructional path to absorb a concept or develop a skill, we need to figure out ways to offer these options. If a student needs a different structure to absorb a concept or develop a skill, we need to figure out ways to restructure or reinvent the routines of teaching and learning.

The demand for accountability is changing the way teachers must work. To meet the challenge, we must move away from false assumptions, unfair accusations, and the incessant finger-pointing that serves to explain away the academic lives of far too many students.

It is abundantly clear that it is teachers, and only teachers, who have the capacity, the context, and the opportunity to authentically improve the nature and quality of education for our children. The strategic role that teachers have in the improvement of education is a precious opportunity, an awesome challenge, and a very real responsibility that we must not take lightly. It is no longer acceptable to say: “I taught them.” We need to be able to say: “They learned.”

Donna M. Marriott is an early-literacy program specialist in the San Diego, Calif., city schools.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as At-Risk Learners— An Insider’s Perspective


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