you motivate an underachieving regular education
student to graduate?
new was taking place at the largest middle school
in Delaware for the 1999–2000 school year, and none
of us knew quite what to think about it, much less
how it would turn out.
My teaching assignment was to pilot a program for
twenty seventh graders who had been retained at
least two times; none had documented learning disabilities.
I was told that I would be the reading and language
arts teacher (meaning they were with me two hours
per day); I would have an extra planning period
to use for tutoring the students as well as for
arranging for intervention services needed outside
the classroom setting. I was also told I would have
the support of the at-risk coordinator and two school-based
counselors. I was assigned to an interdisciplinary
team that would provide the math, science, and social
The students were told that if they made the 3.25
honor roll for the first and second marking periods,
they would be promoted to grade eight at midyear.
They were also told that if they continued to meet
the honor-roll criteria for the remaining marking
periods and passed the state’s assessment (DSTP)
in math and reading (per new state law), they would
be allowed to attend high school in the fall as
My students were highly motivated by the opportunity
to erase one year of failure and were also highly
suspicious of the deal they were making with the
school. At no time did any student indicate doubt
that he or she could meet these goals for promotion.
This last statement is worth repeating. Of the twenty
students who began the program, seventeen remained
as students in our school and sixteen advanced to
high school in the fall of 2000. Only one failed
to meet the promotion criteria.
The program suffered the effects of changing administrations
and ceased to exist as it was piloted. A couple
of years later, a student from the program came
to see me. She asked, “Why aren’t they doing it
any more? What will happen to kids like me?” I knew
from her concerned tone and thoughtful question
that there was a population in our school, probably
in most schools, that needed our attention. I also
knew that unless I documented what happened that
year, the benefit of our experience would be lost
forever. Sixteen of seventeen students graduated
to ninth grade by meeting the goals of the pilot
program. And 85% of those students graduated from
Though not quantifiable, I offer this advice to
teachers of underachievers: Love them. Respect them.
Set high standards and show them every minute that
you believe they can meet those standards…and be
prepared to go the extra mile to show you mean it.
You won’t be the only one giving a test.
- Instead of expecting high schools to make up
for lost time, schools need to establish initiatives
that support underachievers in middle schools.
- Policy makers should look at individual growth
on a variety of measures as the best indicator
of how well we are serving children, instead of
grouping them in a “cell” that has to meet a goal.
- Policy makers should study the effects of mobility;
more needs to be learned about the transient nature
of our underachieving population in the context
of assessment scores for accountability and instruction.
- Middle schools need to do more to prepare students
for the academic, social, and emotional demands
of high school.