Education Chat

The Forgotten Middle

Guest Mary Catherine Swanson took questions on the "silent majority," those students who attend school regularly, rarely say anything, don't cause trouble, and get by with mediocre grades.

The ‘Forgotten Middle’

Guests: Mary Catherine Swanson

Nov. 9, 2005

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about the needs of the silent majority of students who attend school regularly, rarely say anything, don’t cause trouble, and get by with mediocre grades. Some educators call them “The Forgotten Middle.”

Who’s looking out for these students? And what should schools do to ensure that these students get the help and encouragement they need to succeed in school?

We already have hundreds of questions. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Comment from Madge Haven, Ed. Prog. Admin., American Statistical Association:
Not a question - just a big thank you. As a former middle school teacher, this topic is so important. We were pressured to address the needs of the “two pieces of bread but not the middle of the sandwich” - all parts of a sandwich are needed for success. Thank you for addressing this important but neglected issue. Madge Haven

Comment from :
I speak from experience. I speak for myself rather than my institution or position, I do not agree with Mary Catherine Swanson’s premise. I think we indeed teach to the middle. Our exams are geared toward the middle. I believe the truely underserved are the gifted. Generally, nothing is available for this group until at least grade three, minimal enrichment until high school and then little that is creative or challenging. The gifted have the potential of being gifted inventors, economists, researchers and leaders. Our public schools do little to foster this.

Comment from Ann Coker, Administrator, Northern Arizona University:
Kudos to Ms. Swanson and her stand on NCLB! It will take years to undo the damage resulting from the imbalance inherent in this test-driven system.

Question from Dottie O’Brien, Director of Staff Performance for TFA:
I have worked with many MS and HS teachers who use AVID and I have to say, I believe it is a great program for our kids!

(1) In your experience, what are the most common reasons given by students when asked why they were in the “forgotten middle”?

(2) I am familiar with your progam because I work with low performing urban schools. Is AVID also in higher performing schools that also have this same “forgotten middle”?

(3) Do you have any data about your students success in college? How are they looked out for once the graduate HS?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
(1) Students are in the “forgotten middle” primarily because they and their parents don’t understand how they may be somewhere else. Someone within the school system has placed the child in the middle and they never know that they should advance or how to advance. (2) AVID is in all configurations of schools. There is the “forgotten middle” within every school. (3) Independent reasearch shows that 89% of AVID students enroll fully eligible for their sophomore year of college. Local AVID programs develop transition programs with local colleges for on-going support of the students.

Question from Rebecca N. Reed, Teacher to Teacher Cadre, Colonial School District-New Castle, DE:
Does NCLB provide specific instructional and assessment models in order to ‘raise the bar’ for students? If so, which models are encouraged for ‘middle students’ if any?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
NCLB focuses on the students who are not passing state exams. These students are to have access to after school tutoring. NCLB does not focus on students in the middle.

Question from John Shacter, consultant and educator, Kingston, TN:
Let’s agree that public education must be evaluated by how well it prepares our students for the “worlds” of quality employment and quality higher education, The feedback from both worlds is that too many students don’t qualify without remedial education. Isn’t there OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE that our “most advanced” students are as “forgotten” as the “middle” or “average” category of students? (Clearly, I believe the answer is YES! -- especially in math, and effective reasoning and communications, including listening, reading, speaking and writing.)

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Everyone would agree that our students deserve to be competent in basic skills to enter either the world of work or of post secondary education. The question is how we teach these skills. By the time students are in high school, remedial courses rarely work because the students have been enrolled in that material for several years already. But if we accelerate the courses and teach the skills within rigorous courses, the students are challenged and see a purpose for having the skills. Acceleration rather than remediation is the best approach for high school students.

Question from Mary Beth Miiotto, Parent:
Although you note that our nation is focused on the highest and lowest-performing students, I see very little federal or state initiatives for the highest-performing students. Where are all these dollars for the gifted?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Every state has a “gifted program” with differing amounts of dollars devoted to it depending on the state. There is no funded “program” for students in the middle. Most would agree that more dollars need to be spent on all segments of the student population.

Question from Tom Mawhinney, President, Leading for Learning, Inc.:

When I was a high-school principal, I was often the only person advocating for the average or the low-achieving student. How do educational leaders counter-act what I call the education of the elite, considering most BOEs and shared-decision-making committees are made up of the parents of high-achieving kids.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I think that disaggregating test scores as required by NCLB is a good beginning because then all associated with a school can see who is achieving and who is not. The NCLB standards also hold schools accountable for sub groups of students. Trying to have a representative group of parents on school committees is important, but even the parents of the “gifted” would not publicaly advocate for poor education for those in the “forgotten middle.”

Question from Susan Wuori, Counselor, Johnson High School , Savannah, GA:
Are these students better served in homogenous or heterogenous grouping?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Schools do not have accurate methods for “ability grouping,” so clearly heterogenous grouping is preferable. All students have strengths and weaknesses academically and well supervised, focused collaborative groups of students of many abilities is the richest learning environment. When students associate only with students who are “like themselves,” they only learn one way of thinking.

Question from Mrs. Tripo, Active parent Wickliffe City Schools:
Thank you so much for addressing this situation, it’s about time. I have an average student, a respectful, follow the rules child who is not always comfortable asking questions, or sometimes especially in math classes is unable to ask questions since his class has many lower students in there. If we don’t help him how does he get help?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You have identified a real, typical problem. Your student needs the confidence to ask questions and methods for asking effectively. AVID is a program that teaches these skills. It is the school’s as well as parent’s responsibility for helping the student advocate for himself and achieve.

Question from Karen Barnes, Principal Mentor, Fund for Educational Excellence:
What school districts are successfully addressing this dilemma? What strategies or initiatives do they have in place to support this student population?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Numerous school districts across the nation have set a goal that all students will be “college ready” and are grappling with the issues and barriers which keep that goal from being a reality. The College Board and AVID have established a collaborative of superintendents who are working on the issue.

Question from Katherine Nelson, Composition teacher, Arrowhead High School:
Is it just me, or do kids in the middle have a shorter attention span and less willingness to do homework than their counterparts 20-30 years ago?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I think almost every teacher of kids in every group believes that kids have shorter attention spans since the advent of computer games, etc. Of course, this was also the mantra when television first burst on the scene. The task for a teacher is to engage kids in challenging curriculum that they find interesting and to hold them accountable for learning small chunks of that curriculum at first and constantly moving to larger and larger chunks, so they understand that they can do it.

Question from David Hall, Assistant Principal, Martin County High School, Stuart, FLorida:
How do we get minority group students to break free from the expectations many have generated for themselves that being “on level” is good enough and then strive for Advanced Placement work?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
We need to show them the possibilities that are available to them if they tackle Advanced Placement courses. No one really wants to “be average;" they just don’t know how or have the role models to be something else.

Question from Ashish Shah, President, Frameweld Online Learning:
How can NCLB be directly blamed for our nation’s education woes? What other factors do you see are contributing?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
NCLB is not responsible for our nation’s education woes, but it doesn’t address the case of the “forgotten middle.” We have the most diverse population of students in the world that we try to teach to the highest standards. This is tough work, and we need to focus on strategies which work for all students.

Comment from Mike Ford, Superintendent of Schools, Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School Disrict:
As a parent, I find the raising standards movement in New York, has been beneficial to all students, including the more talented. While I agree to some extent that the middle can be forgotten, I find that the top students are grossly neglected in public education.

Question from Susan Harris, Instructor, Delaware Technical and Community College:
I couldn’t agree more! However, this issue has a snowball effect, and the more that isn’t mastered at the appropriate age, the more overwhelming it becomes to simply “catch up” to the levels necessary for academic success. How can the remediaion issues be addressed in the middle and high school grades?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
In a prior question on this chat line I have advocated for accelerating rather than remediating curriculum in secondary schools. The students are then challenged and understand the reason for learning the skills to tackle really interesting course work. But we must structure those courses to make the basic skills work a part of those classes.

Question from David Ayers, Principal/CEO, DA Marketing Solutions LLC:
Aside from initiatives such as “No Child Left Behind”, there seems to be a great deal of emphasis on programming for “high ability” or students we used to refer to as “gifted”.

What impact do you believe this has had on kids “in the middle”?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Once kids internalize the impressions school personnel has of them as less than the best, the negative effects are monumental. We also don’t have very accurate ways of identifying who is capable of being “high achieving.” It is better to encourage all kids to enroll in rigorous courses and let them choose their classes, rather than the school making the decision of who gets what classes.

Question from W.E. Wallace, Administrator:
The forgotten middle usually comprises that largest number of students. How can you say that they are forgotten when they make up the largest percentage of students?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The term “forgotten middle” does not mean that the kids are not in the system. I wrote a prior article entitled “The Forgotten Majority.” What does happen is that these kids find a way through the system without ever distinguishing themselves academically or socially and schools tolerate this practice because the top and bottom take so much of our time. If we also pushed the middle to excell, imagine what our schools and society could become!

Question from Christine Hinojosa, Curator, Univ. of Maryland (and parent):
My 16-year-old bright but disorganized son, is a C+/B- student who has always “flown under the radar” for any recognizable problems. He is a polite, well-behaved, serious student, his teachers say, yet no one thinks there is a need to help this child do his best because he is not a problem. Is there anything that can be done before he exits high school in May 2007?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You describe exactly the “forgotten middle” about which I speak. He needs a class such as AVID which teaches him the skills for advocating for himself academically -- how to ask questions in class, how to work with teachers when he does not get the grades he wishes, how to study effectively. AVID is in two large districts in Maryland -- Baltimore County Schools and Anne Arundle Schools -- but if your son is not in these systems, perhaps you can bring AVID to your district or get a private tutor for your son.

Question from Paul Watlington, ESOL High School Teacher, Fairfax County Public Schools:
One group in the “forgotten middle” would be secondary students who might attend college later, but are anxious to work in skilled professions such as carpentry, electrical, plumbing or a host of other important “manual” jobs that can lead to rewarding and productive careers. Isn’t it possible we’ve gone too far in eliminating or reducing those training options? How can we bring back the positive programs that worked for that segment of the “forgotten middle”?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Many states are now focusing on “manual arts” programs as a solution to the 30% drop out problem. There is no data, however, which shows that this approach is effective for for eliminating drop outs. I don’t think there is anything wrong with “manual arts” programs if they, too, are rigorous so they don’t cut off students’ options upon leaving high school. All students need to be able to read, write, and do mathematics in order to function well in the 21st Century.

Question from Shawn Thompson, Student, C.H. Yoe High School:
I am an AVID student at C.H. Yoe High School and I was wondering how you came up with the Avid program?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
What a conscientious and commited student you must be to be reading Ed Week. Congratulations!

AVID was the response to court ordered integration in 1980 when the school I was teaching at in San Diego received 500 low-income, mostly minority students who had been in remedial curriculum in middle school. Obviously these students were as bright as the Anglo students we had been teaching at the school, but they did not come from homes or communities that stressed education. It seemed obvious to me that I could not prepare them for college unless they took college prep courses in high school and that I would need to support them to do well in those courses. This is AVID.

Four years later, all 30 of my students went to college -- 28 to four year universities and two to community colleges. Today all have graduated from college, the last one just five years ago, and I was invited to his graduation!

Question from George B. Brown, Curriculum Director, Leader’s Challenge:
How do you think this de-emphasis on the middle affects the role of extra-curricular programs? (Leader’s Challenge is a program for high school juniors that focuses on leadership training, civic engagement, and service learning).

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Often getting students in the middle into leadership programs allows them to excel socially which tends to help them succeed academically. Your programs are an important of the success puzzle.

Question from Mark Carter, Teacher:
I am glad that someone seems to remember that most kids probably fall within this “demographic” group. I would argue that public schools probably would be viewed in a more favorable light if the system (Principals, teachers) would focus upon the needs of this group. In my experience, these students will excel academically if they are offered a dynamic challenging course of instruction. How do you propose that educators find that balance between focusing upon lower-tier populations and the “fogotten middle”?


Mary Catherine Swanson:
Our jobs as public school teachers is to focus on all students. It is not our jobs to focus only on those who demand attention. All parents send their children to school to get a good education. Actually those in the middle are not difficult to pay attention to. Most will respond positively when we challenge and support them as you have stated in your remarks.

Question from Mary L. Darling, Professor, Truman College:
I have a student in my class now, who doesn’t ask questions, never asks for help, and I know she does not understand the material. At this point, I don’t know what to do--how can I help this student?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Most students who don’t do well don’t ask questions and don’t even know that they are not succeeding. Their eventual poor grades seem to be a surprise to them. I would call her into your office and let her know you wish for her to succeed. Just this caring for her progress will do wonders. You may need to be able to identify with her what she does not understand by asking her questions and then coach her. Also if you can encourage her to study collaboratively with other students in the class that will help. She needs to know that it isn’t that can’t learn the material, but that the material is difficult and everyone learns better if they discuss it.

Question from Andrea Atkins, feelance writer, Rye, NY:
At our local high school, the administration has done away with honors classes for English and Social Studies. Children of all abilities are grouped together, and children wishing a greater challenge can “opt” for an honors track within the regular class. They then get graded on a different scale, get more work, and at the end of the year, get points added on to their grade point average. Administrators say this entices kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity to try for a more rigorous course. But some parents worry that it sets up artificial standards, and works better in theory than in practice. Have other schools adopted this practice? Has it been tested or shown to be successful?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I know of no data on this approach; although I did try something similar in my English classes during the 1970s and ‘80s. I taught all students the same curriculum, but allowed them to choose student groups within the class to delve more deeply into the curriculum. None of the curriculum was remedial. The key was that the students made the selection. I didn’t tell them what groups to join. The idea was to always encourage the students to choose the most rigorous group because it was much more interesting; however, if they couldn’t because they didn’t understand the basic concepts, they could choose a more basic group until they had built their confidence and skills. The progress of the students was most amazing!

Question from Susan Zink, Adult Education Coordinator, Nye County:
Most students who go to college need a marketable job skill. Why isn’t more emphasis put on preparing for the job market?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Postsecondary education is a wonderful place to prepare for the job market and most postsecondary institutions do this. It is also the appropriate place for students to learn about the wider world and how to be effective, contributing members of our democratic society.

Question from Vance Bower, Grad Student in Agricultural Education, North Carolina State University:
What could we do to improve education for the middle majority?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The majority in the middle need to be enrolled in truly rigorous curriculum and given the support to be successful in that curriculum. Schools need to see the support structures as integral to the school -- not the responsibility of someone or some group outside the school.

Question from Dr. Rima Binder, Former Director Curriculum and Instruction, Current NEIU Adjunct Prof.:
I am interested in the comment” nation’s focus on the hightest” students not on those in the middle. There are numerous reports indicating that the nation is NOT addressing the needs of the “highest” student neither through funding, teacher training, or through sufficiently challenging assessments. Please explain your definition of “highest” and how schools are focusing on them.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Every state has a funded “gifted” program which is defined differently in the various states. No state has a funded program for the “middle” student.

Question from Jeri Powers, Reading Specialist, Riverview Elementary, Shawnee, Kansas:
In our building we use data to determine which students are even slightly below where they need to be in reading development. Many times these are students who are performing very, very close to grade level but just need a little extra support to make sure they are solid. Our goal is to make certain that when they go on to middle school and high school they can excel academically because of a strong foundation. The problem we are having is that some parents become quite angry about the support. They don’t perceive the help as a way to push their child ahead. They think we are providing help where help is not needed and it is a “how dare you suggest my child could use a little help!” Our goal has been to help those students that typically get lost in the low part of middle - the ones that nobody gives any extra attention to. These are the children who have so much potential to go on and do well academically if we provide extra support in elementary. However, we struggle with how to deal with parents that really don’t understand that typically, in most schools across the nation, their child would be lost in the middle and never receive anything extra. How do we get this message across to the parents?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The parents do not need to be told that “Your student needs help.” All students need help in something and the schools need to provide this support. If a student needs extra reading instruction this should be provided, extra math instruction, etc., but the point is that schools need to build in the kinds of support that are appropriate for each child. That is different from “Your student needs help.”

Question from JoAnna Nichols, Classroom Teacher, Hancock County Middle School:
What advice/suggestion do you give novice teachers to make sure to help “bring out” these “forgotten middle”

Mary Catherine Swanson:
All teachers need to know two things. Give students academic rigor or the students believe that the teacher thinks they aren’t smart and they won’t perform. The second thing is that students need to know that the teacher wants them to succeed. Once they know that they will do whatever a teacher asks. This brings out the “forgotten middle” and all other students as well!

Question from Marjorie Beazer, President, Pi Lambda Theta, Sacramento Chapter:
Ms. Swanson:

Realizing the unquestioned value of the issue you raise, how do you propose to initiate and sustain the fundamental shift in paradigm (national, state, local, community, family, et al) needed to address this issue (where, may I ask, is the financial incentive needed to create such movement)?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The financial incentive is the very survival of our nation. If we do not educate all well to sustain a democracy, America as we have known it will fail. Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Short History of the 21st Century points out that China, India, and South Korea in particular are producing more scientists and mathematicians than we and they will work for less, so if we don’t educate our masses to the highest levels, our leadership in the world setting is in serious jeopardy.


Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID holds informational sessions all over the nation and has divisional offices in San Diego, Denver, Austin, and Atlanta. Our national conference, designed specifically for superintendents, board members, and principals is scheduled for March 10-11 in San Diego. All of this information is available on our website at

Question from Jane Herbst, School Library Media Specialist, Babylon U.F.S.D.:
How can we awaken a sense of curiousity or passion about the information these students need to absorb (beyond the minumum they need in order to pass)?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
When students understand the opportunities open to them, they become excited about the courses that get them to a goal they wish to pursue. Exposure to the wider world and its connection to school is ever so important.

Question from Kathleen Meier, Administrative Intern, Robert L. Crippen Elementary:
Do you find “The Forgotten Middle” to be as problematic at all levels of education? My limited classroom observations are all at the elementary level where we are pushing teachers to stop teaching whole group lessons that focus on the “Middle” and move into small group lessons.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
“Whole group” lessons should not be “aimed at the middle” if this means less than rigorous content. All students need strong content. I would be interested in your “small group lessons.” Is that “ability grouping?”

Question from Michelle DeLuca, Evaluator, Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board:
Only 20% of the jobs require a 4 year college degree. In our area, we are trying to get the word out to students, parents and teachers that an associate degree provides the most opportunities and earning potential. Why is preparation for college the only acceptable outcome?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
“Preparation for college” means that students graduate from high school with strong reading, writing, and math skills whatever they wish to pursue. According to the RAND Corporation, 90% of the net new jobs created in the decade of the 90s require a college education. Higher education is ever more necessary to meet the skill level needed in the 21st Century. According to the Alliance Analysis using data from the Common Core of Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics and from Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, those with four-year college degrees earn 91% more than those with high school diplomas. Surely many students will pursue associate degrees, but increasingly four year degrees are required.

Question from Marjorie Beazer, President, Pi Lambda Theta, Sacramento Chapter:
Again, I do share your concern, but I am not sure that the overall goal of our nation’s educational efforts isn’t simply to bring the “failing” students up to the “middle,” so the issue then revolves around the question, “So what?” “So what that the majority of your students are middling, so to speak?” Isn’t that the goal--that they all are minimally capable?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I think if this nation is to survive economically in a world economy that our students need to be more than minimally capable. Today (Tuesday) is election day in your state. I would hope that those voting on the very complicated propositions on the ballot are more than “minimally capable” of reading critically and making important decisions.

Question from Susan Jenkel teacher: Biology, Physics and Assistant Principal 2006:
As the NCLB Act becomes the driving force behind instructional methodology, I think it is the extremely gifted who are being left behind. My question to you is do you believe the middle spectrum is being more ignored than the gifted students?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
NCLB does focus on the bottom quartile, but states still have programs for “gifted,” and not for the “forgotten middle.”

Question from Dr. Lynn J. Coddington, Vice Principal, Jackson Memorial High School:
I share the philosophy of the forgotten middle. I recently discussed at a job interview for a high school principalship that I would concentrate on improving the academic achievement of the middle group of students. I am interested in your specific ideas on strategies that will better prepare this group of students for academic success. I really don’t want to lose valuable time on programs or strategies that have not resulted in academic and social success. I am also interested in identifying schools that are experiencing success based on agreed specific best practices.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
It’s all about academic rigor and student support structures. We have 25 years of student success stories -- more than 30,000 “students in the middle” who have enrolled in college and succeeded. More than 2,200 schools nationwide have adopted these practices and are willing to share their outcomes. One such school is Ramona High School in the Riverside District in California. Theirs is truly an amazing story of success in a setting where most thought “It couldn’t be done.”

Question from Malinda Smith, Counselor, Byron High School:
I totally agree! However, I am frustrated by parents who are okay with their student’s ‘averageness’. When I try to encourage harder, more challenging classes, it’s not only the student I am trying to convince, it’s also the parents. It seems like many parents would rather let their student ‘get by’ then push them to work harder. The comment I hear alot is, “high school is supposed to be fun"--this is from students as well as parents. How do we convince parents, along with their child, that it is in the student’s best interest to work harder in more challenging classes?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
My guess is that this comes from parents not informed about the demands required of an educated student in the 21st Century. Keeping parents abreast of required student skills is important. Let’s face it, students need to know more with the advent of information available via computers than they did even 10 years ago. School can still be fun, but the purpose of school is to educate for our current place in history.

Question from Cothron L. McMillia, Manager, GEAR UP and AVID director for Seattle Public Schools.:
How do you suggest we address this issue and particularly in view of the new GEAR UP grants that will focus on entering 6th and 7th grade students?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The earlier we begin to push students into academic rigor, the better. As you may know, AVID is approved for GEAR UP grants and has a middle school program. Nationally the statistics are that approximately 20% of the middle school curriculum is new for students and that is a huge reason the students are not prepared for the rigor of high school. Every study I read regarding middle school says it needs to be more rigorous -- so you are in a perfect position to do the best thing for students!

Question from Don Goodsell, Author and Retired Teacher:
There is no doubt that the No Child Left Behind Act forces teachers to spend more time with poor students while neglecting the rest. However, the quiet, “C” student suffers most from a curriculum that stresses college entrance. These students should have the opportunity to pursue basic abilities courses geared for survival as a citizen (both vocational and academic) rather than entrance into college. What do you think of this position?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Students in the academic middle are capable of much more than “survival” skills. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office in California, 30% of our students drop out of school, 45% of our students are “general students in the middle,” and 25% of our students actually prepare for college. If schools in America prepare 75% of our students with “survival skills,” surely we will fail as a country that has lead the world.

Question from M. Banks, Claiborne High Math Chair, East Tennessee:
I am the “broom teacher”. I as a secondary mathematics teacher, am expected to sweep up and clean up!If a student does not pass the Tennessee “Gateway” tests he or she is not allowed to recieve a diploma, yet more and more students are entering the Algebra 1 classroom with only “objective training” (aka mastered skills obtained from previous middle-school classrooms seemingly teaching to the test to raise school scores. As a secondary teacher, I am forced to “bring the entering students up” to where all “float” in high school...How do I do this and ensure that the majority are prepared for Algebra 2? I spend more time in meeting the needs of remediation than instuction of continued skills.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
This is a common complaint. Unfortunately not all students come to us with the same set of skills; however, it is our responsibility to teach them the curriculum for the course in which they are enrolled, AND we must bring up their skill levels at the same time. Identifying their concept weaknesses is a first step; having them work in collaborative groups with stronger students on common problem solving is a second step; and one-on-one tutoring with peer or other tutors or with the teacher is yet another solution. The students generally will want to learn quickly in order to keep up with a class that is interesting.

Question from Caroline Conley, graduate student and T.A., English Department, Northern Illinois University:
I’ve noticed this problem in high school as well as college classrooms. What are your suggestions? How can teachers come to recognize this behaviour in themselves? How can we accommodate for all of our students’ very diverse needs?

Thanks, Caroline

Mary Catherine Swanson:
A teacher’s job is to make certain that all students learn. This is accomplished best when students understand that we are on their sides and want them to learn, that we are not there to judge what we preceive to be their shortcomings, and that we are willing to put in the time to work hard with them on tough problems until they succeed. The student’s part of the bargain is that they will work with the teacher!

Question from Edward McShane,Speech Pathologist, Salem Church Middle School:
What instructional models are most effective for the students in “the lower end of the middle,” i.e. the kids often labeled “slow learners,” who do not qualify for Sp. Ed services, but struggle in regular education classes? Thanks!

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Well-structured collaborative groups of a heterogeneous grouping of students working on common problem solving is most effective. Until the students learn how to work in this kind of setting, the task assigned must be very specific, each student must be held accountable for participating, and the time period must initially be short with a product required at the end. Students usually learn best from one another and are much more sensitive to how peers view them than they are to how teachers view them. Also in mixed groups, “slow learners” soon realize that all students struggle with certain concepts and that just maybe they struggle not because they are “slow” but because the curriculum is difficult.

Question from Rose Snyder,Teacher,Duval County Public Schools:
1. What would you suggest schools do that to meet the needs of both underachieving students and “average kids”? 2. What can be done to assist parents in identifying this profile in their child and then what could they do to enhance their child’s learning?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Mixing students of all achievement levels and having them work together on course content is the best way to meet the needs of all students. Parents can be helpful with homework -- at the very least holding the student accountable for completing homework -- but as you know, there are today many computer programs which allow parents to work with their children at home, and teachers need to meet with parents to outline their expectations of the home-to-school connection.

Question from Atsuko Brewer, Ed. Programs Consultant, CA Dept of Ed:
I agree with your observation that too much emphasis is placed on low-performing students and it seems that students with average academic skills are neglected. However, it is also my observation of many classrooms that most teachers tend to target the middle/average not high or low performing students. Low performing students do require focused attention. What would you advise teachers who have students with multi-levels of academic skills in the same class to address their specific needs?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
We need not to focus curriculum on “the middle,” but be certain that it is of high quality. There are many methods of meeting the needs of a mixed group of students. One idea is at the beginning of class have a focus question about the day’s lesson posted about which the students write while the teacher does housekeeping (takes roll, etc.) At the end of this time, the teacher calls on say 5 students randomly to share what they understand about the lesson that will be taught that day. This helps the teacher understand how to focus the lesson and how to construct the collaborative groups to follow. One caution: the collaborative problem -solving groups should be constantly mixed so that students don’t begin to think one is always the “smart” one or the “slow” one. Everyone can contribute in these groups and should be held accountable. At the very least, the groups can identify what questions they need clarified by the teacher if, indeed, they can’t problem-solve.

Question from Marguerite B. Jones:
We need to identify the Forgotten Middle at a very early stage of their education. How can we help all schools meet the Students in the Middle. I am very familiar with the AVID Program. We just implemented the program this year at my HS. The question we have concerns continued funding for programs that really help the students in the Middle. I beleive the Dept. of Ed. should increase funding for public schools now! What type of legislation is being submitted to address this problem nation wide?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Different students will be in the middle in different subjects at different times in their school careers, so “identifying middle students” early is not very accurate. Meeting the academic needs of students throughout their school careers is what is important. If you have AVID at your school, you understand how that support can be structured. Currently there is no legislation for students in the middle. AVID is working on federal legislation, but as educators, we all need to push for adequate dollars to support all of our students!

Question from Barbara Stein-Stover, doctorate student, teacher:
Do you think teachers are even aware of the “forgotten middle” when they see hundreds of students per day and are stretching to give each student three minutes a week of individual time? This has been reported to me by many teachers and is a real concern. Until we develop self directed learners it is not possible!

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You have identified a huge problem. We have not structured schools to be student-friendly when teachers carry student loads of 150 plus students per day. Many schools are working with varying school schedules which cut this ratio in half. Also many schools are adopting student support structures scheduled within the school day. We must pay attention to all our students or only those who have means of support outside the school setting (perhaps a home with well-educated parents)will really succeed. Many educators are working on this problem understanding that we need to find a solution!

Question from Lynn Reed, Manager of Information Service, Boulder Public Library, Boulder, Colorado:
Students not enrolled in AP courses in high school seem to be required to read simplistic novels, not that the simplistic novels are bad, only that great literature is no longer assigned to them. These students are rarely challenged to do high quality research including exploring topics and the nature of their assignments and there is no expectation to use any research tools except Google.Why has the system so dumbed down the experience for the general student?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You are exactly right! An important issue that isn’t often researched or talked about (outside of AVID) is what I refer to as the “Expectation Gap.” The Expectation Gap is a system centric phenomenon similar to the Achievement Gap which is student centric. The Expectation Gap is defined by the requirements necessary for high school graduation relative to the requirements necessary for 4-yr College or University entrance. In California, the gap is operationally defined by the expectations of the California High School Exit Exam compared with the content knowledge and skills necessary for UC or CSU entrance. The discourse surrounding this focal point chips away at the popular tendency of many high schools to focus on “bubble” kids, shoveling remedial content down their throats in hopes that they will outperform an arbitrarily set benchmark. This practice leaves very little time for addressing the bigger issue of preparing students for life after basic accountability exams.

Question from Keith Van Fossen, Teacher, Augusta County Virginia:
How can we as education professionals relay our concerns such as this to the policy makers in an effective manner to meet the needs of all students?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID has advocated policy changes to support the college going aspirations of low-income students at the local school district, state superintendent and governor, and federal U.S. Department of Education and congressional levels. Since so much of education policy has devolved to the states, it would be most important to get involved in state efforts to ensure that all students have access to a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, can receive academic support to succeed in those courses, and have access to four-year colleges and universities.

In Virginia, where you are from, the state used to have legislation that provided funding to school districts to support AVID programs. With budget cuts, these funds were terminated. It would be important for your school division board and superintendent to come together with the many other school districts in Virginia that have AVID to advocate for the restoration of this legislation and these funds.

Question from Sheryl Ford, Family and Consumer Science Teacher, Caesar Rodney High School:
After 26 years of teaching I can truly say that I have seen the forgotten middle situations many times. Don’t you think that we fail to recognize that sometimes this group does perform as well as they could because of the helplessness they feel over us ignoring them?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I can just say “yes” to your observation. Students tell us over and over that the most important thing to them in school is the connection to an adult in the school setting who cares about their progress.

Question from Janet Patterson, Program Manager, Penn State:
Has your research addressed the size of school in this issue, and how it relates to students becoming invisible?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Several foundations are giving districts money to break into smaller schools; however, over the long run although this will allow students to have more individual attention, the administrative and facility costs will be prohibitive. AVID is a model which allows traditional secondary schools to personalize education. The important thing is to make sure that students don’t “slip through the cracks” because no one pays attention to them. Varying time schedules in schools can also get to this issue.

Question from Teri Graf, VP Sales, Infinity Softworks:
What is the comparison of family status, parental involvement and ethnicity for the mediocres vs. the successful?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
If a student comes from a upper or middle income family, the odds are 1 in 2 that child will go to college. If the student is from a lower-income family, the odds are 1 in 17. That is why it is so important that particularly students from lower-income families receive academic support in school. It simply cannot come from the home where undoubtedly the parents are undereducated. Nevertheless, these students have the right to a good education as all students do.

Question from Sally Regnier, Teacher Specialist, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Anne Arundel County, Maryland:
Many teachers are so busy “putting out fires"- dealing with the acting out behaviors that demand attention. What strategies do you suggest that teachers can use to reduce such behaviors and give time to those who are not demanding attention?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
“Acting out” behaviors usually occur when students are bored or falling behind in school work and they are trying to “look cool” to hide their fear of being “found out.” This argues for truly rigorous, interesting curriculum and giving support to students when they begin to fall behind. Let’s face it, students don’t want to come to school every day to be miserable. They truly want to succeed in order to feel good about themselves, but we must show them the way.

Question from T Thomas:
what is AVID really for? I know it is a college prep class, but what else is it?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Traditional AVID is a program for low-income students who are “middling” or getting “C” grades in unchallenging classes; however, they are students who don’t want to flunk out of school. They are placed in the most rigorous curriculum their school offers (including AP and/or IB courses) and given a regularly scheduled elective class during the school day where they are given academic support.

This support requires that the students take notes in every academic class, for homework develop questions from their notes, the following day in AVID they participate in a subject specific study group where they and a trained tutor use the Socratic method for helping them find answers to their questions, and before they leave class they summarize in writing what they now understand and explain it to someone else in the group. If they cannot do this in their own words, the knowledge is not yet theirs and the concept or problem is tackled again.

This said, AVID trains all teachers in a school to use this method of teaching so that all students have access to the most rigorous curriculum. I think you can see that it is an almost fool-proof system for learning. In schools that adopt this pedagogy and the philosophy that all students will succeed at high levels because that is the school’s responsibility,we find amazing achievement on test scores, in classes, and in student enrollment in colleges.

Question from Muriel Mann, Assistant Principal, Layton High School:
Does data indicate that “Small Learning Communities” is addressing this group of students and if so, in what ways?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Small learning communities have improved the drop out rates, but so far not the achievement rates. Personalizing education is important, but we must focus on content and pedagogy. If smaller groups are taught in the same manner that larger groups are taught, we get the same results.

Question from Teahcer, Chicago Public School:
One of the essentials of AVID is that the students and teachers must want to be a part of the program, but our school is attempting to make the entire school AVID. Do you honestly think this could work? and if so, do you have any suggestions to help us be more successful?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID can successfully be a schoolwide program, but not all students need the AVID elective class to which I assume you are referring. The AVID elective class is appropriate for students in the middle who then become solid A-B students in college prep curriculum. Jeannie Oakes, education researcher at UCLA, says that “AVID proves that most students can become great students if given support an hour per day.” However, some students need very little support because they can get it at home or elsewhere and are alredy getting A and B grades. Some students need more support than one hour per day. So AVID schoolwide means that the entire school sets a goal that all students will be enrolled in rigorous curriculum and given the appropriate support to be successful. Training in AVID pedagogy and structures for support accomplishes this goal.

Question from Derik Hayenga Associate Director United Educators Association:
What work has been done around motivating this “middle”? Can these skills be taught to educators? I am always amazed at the level of performance when a student becomes “motivated”.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Students become motivated when they understand the connection between school and the possibilities school will open to them. Good teachers are always able to connect their classes to the wider world and motivate students. An important corollary to this is that the students know the teacher believes they can succeed and wants them to succeed. Then school becomes exciting as students and teachers together explore the students’ present learning as well as the future.

Question from Barbara Taylor, Administrator, University of Texas:
Do you feel that Early College programs/initiatives help address this issue, with a focus on preparing ALL students for college?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I have not studied these programs intimately but they certainly seem to provide the kind of impetus and structure that would allow all students to be successful.

Comment from Lou Ann Hale, FCS Teacher, Rutland High School, VT:
I agree that the same competencies needed for college are the same as those necessary to the world of work. I don’t think that we do enough in schools to connect college and the world of work for students. Students need the content (knowledge) as well as the context (application) in order to be successful college students and employees. Students are often classified in early elementary school. If they are challenged academically, vocational education is looked upon as the solution to the problem. When we finally collaborate and fully understand that vocational education as the context for academics then there is hope for all students.

Question from Garnett Arnold, MPA Student, University of Oklahoma:
The “middle” consists of students who have the potential to be top students, and students who do just enough to get by. How do teachers and administrators identify and challenge these students, without increasing the failure rate of the bottom 10%?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
When schools focus on academics and support, “all ships rise.” When students in the middle perform better, so do the lower end students because teachers are teaching better. Heterogeneous grouping is a key.

Question from Shawn Paulling, Teaching Fellow, Citizen Schools:
How can afterschool programs work to push these students to work at (or discover) their full potential?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Support given anywhere is better than no support, but I am always leary of after school or other such programs because they take the responsibility for learning away from the school. Also students who need the most help often do not attend after school programs either because they do not understand that they need help or because they see the programs as punishment. Some students live amidst chaos and find it difficult to do homework after school. In these cases, the school needs to offer an integrated time and place to help these students or any other students who want such help.

Question from :
How do we, as teachers, demand that changes take place?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You always want to begin with the “committed.” Those who think as you do need to organize, meet with administration, etc. and in a very “user friendly” way create change. When others feel they are being forced to do things differently or feel they are being judged negatively, they will not follow and may sabotage the effort. Once a group of you has demonstrable success, others will want to follow.

Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher,ISCA, Los Angeles:
What is your teaching experience? How did you develop the AVID idea? What statistics do you have about students in the middle?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I taught high school English for 20 years and developed AVID after 14 years of teaching. Its purpose was to take students who had “C” grades in non-college prep curriculum and who came from undereducated, low-income families and enroll them in rigorous curriculum and give them support to achieve. Today more than 30,000 such students have gone through AVID and enrolled in college at a 95% rate. Absolute proof that students in the middle can achieve at high levels if we give them rigor and support!

Question from Rocco Marano, Director of Student Activities, Nat’l Assoc of Sec. School Principals:
We sometimes refer to the type of student you wrote about as the “Invisible Student”. What role do you see student activities (which NASSP feels are cocurricular not extra) playing to assist these students and what can schools do to help get them involved?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The more we involve students in school, the better they perform because they feel connected. Student activities in school are VERY important!

Question from Jamecca Marshall, Research Assistant, Alliance for Excellent Education:
What role do Individual Graduation Plans or High School Student Action Plans play in AVID coursework/counseling and what role do you think they could play to help all high school students set higher standards?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Individual student plans are very important and parents need to be involved in the plans as well so that they are in support of their students. Once students have defined goals, they are much more likely to be motivated and succeed.

Question from Mary E Letson, Parent, Lemont Public Schools:
How many of the ‘forgotten middle’ could be academically advanced students who have either never been identified because of lack of funding or have ‘dropped’ out and become underachievers for the same reason? What is being done to address these students as well?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The group you refer to is undoubtedly a large portion of the forgotten middle. These students need academic rigor and the hope of a bright future. This is something schools can do!

Question from Carol Ricker, Literature teacher, Waukegan Freshman Center:
Some days I notice that the only names I have used are those of students with inappropriate behavior and those of students who volunteer an answer. What are some strategies that you use to involve every person in a discussion?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
It is difficult to involve an entire class in a discussion. Teachers do not have the time to call on every student. Therefore, small group discussions work well or a random selection of students to respond in a large group setting. Always give some kind of credit to students for insightful answers so that they stay alert!

Question from Linda Roeder, teacher, Cedarbrook Middle School, Cheltenham Township School District:
I have been following AVID for some time, and I agree totally with Ms. Swanson’s views about the underserved middle. The gifted students, while sometimes “bored” in their courses, do have services provided for them that the middle students do not have. If the rigorous curriculum is made available to students in the middle as well as the top achievers (who have always been at the top), more students will be able to achieve. The key, though, is to provide support for the middle students who are boosted into higher level courses. AVID’s plan has it right--to have a class during the school day to teach the students how to be achievers.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You do “have it right!” We need to support all students appropriately and make it a part of the regular school day. We can use peer tutors for such support in which case everyone learns!

Question from Ryan Chapman, AVID II tutor, AGHS:
How did you implement the AVID tutors into the AVID program, and was that done because of data that suggested an improvement in student achievement?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I used tutors because as an English teacher now teaching AVID, I could not give adequate support in math or science courses. The tutors must be well-trained to be good questioners and not “answer givers.” College students are especially great role models for getting high school students motivated to go to college, and today’s college students are well rounded in most subjects!

Question from Sherise Laughinghouse, AVID II student, AGHS:
Is AVID a world wide program?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID is in 36 states and 15 countries through the Department of Defense Schools and in Canada as well.

Question from Annette Young, Assistant Professor of Education, MSU-Northern:
Mary, I am currently working with a school district addressing this very issue. There are special services for below average students, but they have identified the middle group as also needing attention. They are working with this group via special services teachers. Our initial conversations have shown a disconnect between special service teachers and the regular education teachers. Do you have recommendations on how to bridge this gap and encourage continuity between the regular classroom teacher and the special services teachers?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I don’t know how “special service” teachers are used in your state, but teaching all students well is the responsibility of the regular classroom teacher and should not be separated from those courses. If the special service teachers give additional attention in the regular classroom setting, there is continunity.

Question from Pam Goins, Senior Education Policy Analyst, Council of State Governments:
What recommendations can you give to state policymakers regarding educational achievement for all students, including the “forgotten middle?”

Mary Catherine Swanson:
State policy makers need to understand that we are undereducating a huge portion of our students, and that given just a bit more support, these students can become very good students. This approach is good for individuals and for our country. To pour the majority of our resources into the lowest achievers is a mistake.

Question from M. Dallas, Curriculum Coordinator. Lincoln Elementary Schools:
As a teacher and parent of gifted children, I am pleased to see comments relating to the lack of services available. To correct one answer, here in Illinois gifted education funding has been completely eliminated for at least 3 years. Isn’t it our responsibility to teach each individual child at a level where assignments are challenging to them?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Yes, it is our responsibility to teach each child where assignments are challenging to him.

Question from Mike Ford, Superintendent of Schools, Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School Disrict:
How does one accelerate a student who is lacking basic skills?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Once students are placed into interesting, challenging curriculum they see the reason for knowing basic skills and learn them very quickly, but because not all students will come to the courses with those skills, we need to have student support structures built into classes.

Question from Jerry Miller, retired educator:
Is it possible that the lack of participation is due to a sense of a lack of presumed relevance on the part of this group of students--they don’t see the curriculum relating to their futures?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I think you are right, but it is a teacher’s responsibility to show the relevance of the material. Why would we teach irrelevant material?

Question from Linda Wright, Media Specialist Creekview High School CFBISD:
How can we convince administrators that there is a real need to address this issue because we need a populace that are participants not silent partners?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Administrators are held accountable for student performance. If we pay attention to the forgotten middle who are not difficult to advance, test scores go up dramatically. So if not for obvious personal and societal reasons, most administrators will wish to tackle this problem because of accountability factors.

Question from Jill Dickens, Education Student, National University:
How does A.V.I.D. answer the needs of the kids in the middle?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID focuses on students in the middle and places them in the most rigorous courses and then gives them the support to do well. A key to helping all students is to organize schools so that one teacher is responsible for their academic progress during their tenure in a specific school setting. AVID does this. This an inexpensive way to personalize education and gives students the support they need.

Question from Sharon Hoffman, Director Rhode Island Scholars, The Education Partnership:
The State Scholars initiatives in place in 14 states and funded originally through the Department of Education, is precisely designed to push for greater academic rigor for the middle 50th percentile student population. Why not promote the expansion and long term sustainability of this low-cost positive outcome model that has a demonstrated track record for student achievement, creating a high school diploma that is well aligned with post secondary expectations and which meets industry’s hiring standards?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I have not studied this program thoroughly, but it sounds very promising.

Question from Paul Robdau, Department Head, Laconia High School:
What strategies does Mary Catherine have to deal with the large caseloads guidance counselors have? As known, large caeloads have a tremendous impact on the ability for counselors to focus on the “forgotten middle.”

Mary Catherine Swanson:
Clearly large caseloads are a problem. Many states hire counselors during the summer to make individual educational plans with students and parents. This helps. Also having one teacher within a school responsible for a group of students throughout their career within that school setting (such as we do in AVID) is a tremendous help to the over-loaded counselor. Clearly someone within the school needs to be responsible for the student!

Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Your attention to the middle sounds like a very old piece of advice a veteran teacher gave me a long time ago: “Aim your lesson for the middle and individualize on the edges.” What is different about what you are proposing?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
I do not advocate aiming the lesson to the middle, but to the top and then giving the middle students the support to succeed. It is not rocket science -- students cannot learn what they are never given, so we must give them all the best curriculum!

Question from Ray Whitley Coordinator, Media Production, LRT, Nova Scotia Department of Education:
When, in your article, you say more students must complete a greater number of “more rigorous” courses, what do YOU mean by “rigor,” please? IMHO, it’s the hoary old “stand & deliver” style of many advanced high school courses that alienates “the middle” in droves.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
The reason the middle is “alienated” in the advanced courses, is because they either are not supported to do well in the courses or they do not see the relevance of the courses in their lives. Teachers can address both these issues. The courses, in and of themselves, are not courses that are designed to alienate.

Question from Sarah Adler, English Teacher, Carson High:
Great topic, but I think we’re starting in the middle. Critical to their learning is the personal motivation and parental support middle students bring with them to class. What can we, or society more broadly, do to bring those up? Thanks.

Mary Catherine Swanson:
In the ideal world, the students would come to school with wonderful support from the home, but this is just not the case for many of our students for a variety of reasons. In those cases, the schools need to structure support systems. AVID is one way to do this. It is obvious that if students are hungry, lacking sleep, in personal danger, etc. that they will not learn well in school. Someone needs to step in.

Question from Sharon Jones, Principal:
Our alternative school for grades 6-12 is in a rural area. Many of our “forgotten middle” students are not motivated to even complete high school as too many of their parents did not. How do we energize these students to succeed?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
They need to understand the possibilities open to them if they complete high school and continue their education as opposed to dropping out. Their parents need to be educated to this as well. Most parents want a better life for their child than the life they have had, and most can see the value of education in accomplishing this goal. It is an issue of educating both students and their parents.

Question from Bill Hodge- Retired District Administrator:
To what extent do you believe that the forgotten middle in our schools reflects the social and economic phenomena relating to the alleged demise of the middle class in America?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
You are right that the top wage earners and the bottom are getting further and further apart. As we know, it is a strong middle class that perpetuates a democracy, so if our educators understand this, they should have great motivation to address the middle. Not to do so with the result that the middle class disappears and further that certain ethnicities are over represented in the top and bottom, America as we have known it will disappear. Historically civil war has resulted from such situations.

Question from Cheryll Dougherty, Assistant Principal at Unami Middle School in Central Bucks School District:
Are there exemplary schools with programs that more successfully address the needs of “average” students? If so, how can I find them?

Mary Catherine Swanson:
AVID schools do this across the nation. Where those schools are located is available on the AVID website at

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this lively online chat. Your questions and comments were very thoughtful. And I want to extend a special thanks to our guest, Mary Catherine Swanson, for answering your questions.

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