Teaching Opinion

It’s Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle

By Mary Catherine Swanson — November 01, 2005 5 min read
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Barbara Kiwak


Hearing that “all the children are above average” in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon elicits a knowing chuckle, not just because it’s a mathematical impossibility, but also because most of us think our own children are special. No one wants to be considered “average,” even if you’re often in good company.

But this aversion is one reason we neglect average students in education. In recent years, our focus on the top and bottom has become more glaring, and we have largely ignored the vast middle in our schools. We’ve returned to a tracking system by default.

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Who are these forgotten-middle students? Generally, they’re the silent majority—the kids who come to school regularly, sit in the back of the class, rarely say anything, don’t cause trouble, and get by with C’s. They are not failing, nor are they the math whiz or star pupil. They are nearly invisible. Their parents and teachers are content that they are making it through and no alarm bells are going off.

They constitute a large part of the middle two quartiles of students. They’ll graduate, but won’t be prepared for college. And many of them will wander around for years in dead-end jobs.

It’s time to re-energize the discussion on how to serve those “average” students. Today, we’re consigning millions of students to low expectations, ignoring their true potential, and denying them the education they need to get ahead. Schools are not making the achievement gains they could. And we’re contributing to greater economic and racial polarization in our country, while failing to address national workforce and economic realities.

The persistent and growing divide we saw so vividly following Hurricane Katrina—thousands of people, predominantly African-American, trapped by floodwaters and poverty—exists nationwide. For moral and economic reasons, no society should condone this unconscionably extreme division of its people’s access to opportunity.

Making every child college-ready must start with giving students a clear sense of what they need to do to succeed.

The economic consequences of ignoring the middle majority of our students are sobering. The lifetime earnings of a typical college graduate are close to $1 million more than those of someone with only a high school diploma. And the education-related income gap is widening. In the 1990s, real earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree rose at three times the rate of high school graduates’ wages. The differing prospects of getting and keeping a job also are striking: The unemployment rate among college graduates is about half the rate for high school graduates.

Beyond the individual income potential, our society and the nation’s economy pay a price as well. While China and India surge ahead, and a quarter of the scientists and engineers in U.S. research and product development today are foreign-born, so few American students are going into science and engineering that business leaders are calling for doubling the number of Americans with degrees in these disciplines. Yet we restrict our search for a solution to the thin slice of highest achievers. Instead, we should introduce more students to such coursework, motivate and support them, and create a bigger pool going into these fields.

Likewise, we lament that our college campuses are getting less diverse as our society gets more diverse. But we neglect first-generation college students, minority students, and lower-income students.

Today, our school policies focus on the top and bottom quartiles to the exclusion of the huge middle. Federal programs are aimed at either gifted and talented students or special-needs and at-risk kids. The two ends of the spectrum understandably have demanding and costly needs, but they have gotten most of the attention and money.

As well-meaning as the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act may be, the law exacerbates this imbalance by focusing on basic skills and failing schools, not whether students are college-ready. Tutoring dollars go to low-income students in schools that are making insufficient progress. In essence, it’s a retracking program focused on the academic bottom.

What’s needed is an untracking program that makes college-readiness for all students, including the forgotten middle, a paramount goal and a strategy for improvement. We must start by abandoning the mind-set that labels so many students as not being college material. The expectation ought to be that all students, with few exceptions, will complete the rigorous course loads needed to get into a four-year college.

Not everyone will get a college degree, but having acquired essential skills and knowledge, students will be better off, whether they go to college, receive other training, or go right into the workforce. Employers, after all, are demanding the same critical-thinking, math, and communications skills required by college-admissions officers.

Making every child college-ready must start with giving students a clear sense of what they need to do to succeed. Most 9th graders say they want to go to college. But in two or three years, having remained forgotten in the background, most won’t have taken the courses necessary to gain admission.

Addressing the needs of the forgotten middle isn’t just a nice thing to do. Our nation’s economic and moral position in the world depends on how effectively we respond to this challenge.

Raising achievement requires challenging our students to take more rigorous classes and providing the support they need to do so. Classes that stretch and stimulate the mind bring out the best in students. They rise to the challenge and become more driven and more focused. U.S. Department of Education research shows that a rigorous curriculum is the best preparation for college success, especially for Latino and African-American students. That’s why colleges routinely place greater value on a C-plus grade in an Advanced Placement course than on a B-plus in a run-of-the-mill class.

But students need support to make it. That’s especially true for those whose parents didn’t go to college, who come from homes where English is a second language, or who face obstacles related to poverty. The support structures must be tailored to the different needs of individual students, and cannot be optional. They must be part of the regular school day, where they’ll be a core part of learning and be recognized as essential.

We know that students can do it. Ninety-five percent of the students served by the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program have gone on to college, enrolling at three times the rate of students without the rigor-and-support approach.

They show that Garrison Keillor’s description of the children of Lake Wobegon is not really off. Most of the forgotten-middle students are really above average. We simply have defined our expectations and requirements for them too low. By raising the bar, instead of lowering it, and by providing the necessary support, we can ensure that students graduate ready to fulfill their potential.

Addressing the needs of the forgotten middle isn’t just a nice thing to do. Increasingly, our nation’s economic and moral position in the world depends on how effectively we respond to this challenge.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as It’s Time to Focus On the Forgotten Middle


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