Want to eliminate at-risk kids? Call them something else.
I sympathize with those who may not be comfortable with the latest plan to rid our schools of at-risk kids. Several educators across the country, including Alexandria city schools superintendent Morton Sherman, have decided not to call them that anymore. Henceforth they will be known as “at-promise” children.
“We use the term ‘at-promise’ in Alexandria City Public Schools to describe children who have the potential to achieve at a higher rate than they are currently achieving,” Sherman said in a July 23 op-ed for the Alexandria Gazette Packet. “Really, all children are at-promise, because we, as educators, have made a promise to each and every child that we will work toward higher achievement for all.”
Alexandria schools deputy superintendent Cathy David explained at a school board meeting last December: “The previous ‘at-risk’ model was a deficit model that identified and categorized children by criteria such as low income, special education, ethnicity or English language proficiency, with the assumption that if the criteria fit the child, then the child must have some sort of deficit. The ‘at promise’ model comes from strengths.”
Word of this change has spread slowly. I first heard it a few days ago from a teacher. I sought reaction from people I know who stay current on educational trends. They weren’t thrilled.
Vern Williams, a nationally recognized math teacher in Fairfax County, said “this is a perfect example of school systems concentrating on feel-good language instead of admitting that part of the problem of low achievement is caused by the lack of motivation and effort on the student’s part.”
Abigail Thernstrom, a McLean-based education scholar who is vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said “the schools can change the rhetoric, but at the end of the day, all that counts is what they actually accomplish.”
Former Arlington County school board chairman David Foster said ‘at-promise’ is “a politically correct term that conveys no meaning.” It also confuses the issue by suggesting that how we label students is important.”
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor J. Martin Rochester said “the wordsmithing of ‘at risk’ vs. ‘at promise’ is an example of K-12 gobbledygook at its worst--not only a distinction without a difference but a really awkward phrasing at that.”
Still, Sherman and David are exemplary educators who are very thoughtful about their jobs. They knew they were going to get slammed for this, as did other teachers that have adopted it. But they taught their students to strive for clarity in speaking and writing, and “at-risk” wasn’t doing that for them.
“At-promise” has been floating around for at least a decade. The earliest media reference I that Post researcher Madonna Lebling could locate for me was in a September 1997 Associated Press story about a mentoring program for junior high students in Norfolk, Neb. The term did not find fertile soil until 2004, when motivational speaker and educational consultant Larry Bell, a former award-winning Prince William County teacher, used it often in a speech to a San Diego conference sponsored by SIATech, a non-profit that runs high schools at 14 Job Corps training centers.
Two SIATech officials, Eileen Holmes and Linda Dawson, were so inspired they started holding at-promise conferences. Then they established the Reaching At-Promise Students Association to spread the notion that every child has potential to improve.
Attention-grabbing labels frequently blossom in the education world, then wither away. This may be just one more. But that does not mean that the people embracing it are wrong.
Educators accept without thinking many concepts that encourage unhealthy policies. What about our focus on the achievement gap, which urges improvement for minority students but implies that white kids are doing well enough? Why not seek more achievement for all? Isn’t that what the at-promise concept means?
The educators who have adopted this latest buzz word will be getting more than their share of taunting emails. At-promise students may lose the label before they even knew they had it. But the teachers I know who do the most for kids are all very positive thinkers, just like the at-promise people. Maybe we should be too.
| November 15, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Metro Monday | Tags: Alexandria City Schools, achievement gap, at-promise students, at-risk students, political correctness
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