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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.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Using positive rather than negative language and labels is lovely. But educators have mired themselves so much in naming gobbledygook that they've lost sight of communicating their message.

At a parent/teacher conference last week, and at PTO meetings this year, and in newsletters home, my school in Wisconsin keeps referring to their new "team model" and how "team modeling" is really working well. Why not just say they're pairing classes and teachers now? And frankly, why bother labeling it at all. They did the same thing last year, didn't call it "team modeling," and the kids worked the same way and learned the same way.

Why talk about "restorative justice," which are fancy words that don't tell anyone by PhDs anything. Can you seriously say that with a straight face to the parent of a low-income child and expect them to really know what the heck you're talking about? Why do we have "literacy" instead of "reading and writing and vocabulary." (And what happened to writing and vocabulary, because they seem to have fallen the way of clear communication?)

It's not just education, but every "industry." Jargon has overtaken the world. It's fine if you want to use it within your industry. (Few other than journalists know what I'm talking about when I write "hed" or "graf" or "jump," so I avoid using those when talking to non-journalists) Yet, we have "conflict" instead of "war," "toxic assets recovery program" instead of "bailout." And on and on.

Skip the PR and just COMMUNICATE. In everyday, old-fashioned words. Remember to useful encouraging, positive word choices whenever you can - whether you're an educator or a scientist. But don't create phrases to pacify or delude people.

This reminds me of the trend to avoid using red ink when grading homework because seeing red ink lowered a child's self-esteem. Purple's cool, green's OK, but not red. Now, teachers in some of our schools in Wisconsin don't even assign homework, because not everyone is "capable" of doing it or "not every child has a computer at home." When they do get homework, it frequently doesn't count toward the child's grade for those same reasons.)

So again, feel-good language is not inherently bad. But we must be careful about moving from feel-good language to feel-good policies that are actually detrimental to the core goals of education.

Posted by: dianebh | November 15, 2009 11:15 PM | Report abuse

And those typos are what I get for not "previewing" before submitting. Apologies!

Posted by: dianebh | November 15, 2009 11:18 PM | Report abuse

Why would anyone want to call any student "at-promise" or "at-risk"? That will create another cottage industry of materials and programs to get "at-promise" students to standards. Wait a minute, it alreday started.

Schools should be more interested in helping everyone rather than leaving some behind. Students should all have the same access and equal benefits of every school.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 16, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

We shouldn't be trying to label or categorize students in the first place, but trying to educate them all to the best of our ability. Every one is an individual, not a category. When are we going to stop trying to break people down into separate, easily labeled components, as if that is the only way people can be defined?

Posted by: falltillfly | November 16, 2009 6:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm convinced that teachers just can't win. No matter what they do, there is always someone who will criticize, condemn, or complain about what they are trying to accomplish; usually by someone who has no common clue what goes on in a classroom these days. Education, like a lot of other entities, just can't be "all things to all people".

Posted by: jcsu5416 | November 16, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

How about we cut directly to the core of the matter and say "lower-IQ" instead of the euphemisms "at-risk" or "at-promise"?

"Higher-IQ" are those students with IQs above 115 (i.e. those with intellectual abilities adequate for the college educated professions: lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors, teachers, writers, administrators etc.).

"Middle-IQ" are those students with IQs in the range of 86 to 115 (i.e. those with intellectual abilities adequate for the skilled trades, technicians, firefighters, police, salespeople, office-workers etc.).

"Lower-IQ" are those students with IQs below 85 (i.e. those with intellectual abilities adequate for unskilled laborers, security guards, custodians, factory workers, cash register clerks etc.).

There are ethnic differences in the proportions of each ethnic group that fall within the various IQ-stratified levels. Thus Jewish and Asian students are skewed mostly within the higher-IQ and middle-IQ ranges while Hispanic and Black students are skewed mostly within the middle-IQ and lower-IQ ranges. Non-Jewish Whites are more symmetrically distributed across the the IQ spectrum.

Academic failures and high school dropouts are predominantly found within groups of students that fall within the lower-IQ group; that is why these students were initially referred to with the euphimism "at risk". The use of the term "at-promise" to refer to groups of mostly lower-IQ students would be entirely inaccurate if the meaning connoted "promise" with regard to academic achievement; so use of the term in this manner makes the left-wing education establishment appear even more loony than usual (which is saying a lot).

Posted by: rifraf | November 16, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

The phrasing sounds dumb.

The only classification system I've discovered which makes any sense is the one devised by Kevin Riley, the principal at Mueller Charter School in CA. I am NOT in support of the charter school movement by any means, so this innovation on his part must be exceptional if I am willing to praise it.

Riley calls it the Resiliency Quadrant System, and it is a tool for helping his staff direct the right kind of energy and effort toward the students.

Here's how it works. The staff works together to classify students into one of four categories (quadrants), depending on certain student variables. The variables include test scores and other things like stressors going on in the childrens' personal lives (having personally experienced violence, the loss of a family member, if they are in a foster or group home, if a parent is ill, etc.)

Another good thing about this system is that it helps the school to monitor changes, depending if things are going worse or better for the students. Students can be shifted up or down in the quadrant system whenever their circumstances change. The type and amount of attention they need will be adjusted accordingly.

Race and income level don't accurately describe the challenges which students present. Riley's method isn't just a way to use another meaningless, flat label. Instead it is a fluid, nuanced, and highly targeted system that can help direct the right type and amount of resources to kids.

Posted by: pondoora | November 16, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I wasn't going to comment and then I read rifraf's statement which basically said that non-white/asian/jewish students have low IQs, and that they have no hope of succeeding.

Honestly, that is the attitude that is perpetuated in schools where black and hispanic children continue to be labeled as at-risk, low achievers or special education. Usually these students come in to school behind their peers, not because of low IQ, but because their parents are less educated or poorer than the baseline white students.

The use of at-promise is intended to stop the labeling that perpetuates this cycle. If it is effective, great; it can't be worse than automatic at-risk labels.

Posted by: ami00000 | November 16, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I wasn’t going to comment until I read ami00000’s comment claiming that rifraf said certain ethnic groups of kids “have no hope of succeeding” which was not my understanding of rifraf’s comment at all.

I’d put it this way, “some kids need more help than others reaching a level of competence that will allow them to function adequately in society.” That’s vague and incomplete, I know – I’m just taking a stab at it.

I really like Riley’s Resiliency Quadrant System, as explained by Poondora, because it provides a practical framework for doing something to help kids in need, whatever their changing needs may be, without using a vague, euphemistic, feel-good term that implies the existence of a single acceptable goal (e.g., “closing the achievement gap” or having all kids “achieve at high-levels” despite their lives outside of school). Of course, it might not catch on in the absence of a clever title and a simplistic goal that doesn’t consider the uniqueness of each child.

Without knowing anything about such a system, I can see it working well without any mention of IQ or ethnicity. I can imagine measures such as achievement on standardized tests, grades, attendance, self-described attitude toward school, academic interests, living situation, family support system, family changes (e.g., job loss, deaths, divorce, etc.)

Posted by: efavorite | November 16, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Not all disadvantaged kids have a low IQ. Bright kids can be found across the socioeconomic spectrum. I know some really intelligent individuals who grew up poor. Yeah, there likely is a positive correlation between income and IQ but if one were to do a scatter plot, one would see many poor-but-bright kids and also many rich-but-dumb kids.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 16, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

We spend an inordinate amount of time debating and agonizing over labels which distracts us from ensuring that the ideas behind the label are addressed. What difference does it make what we "label" children whom we have failed and are in need our help? Charlotte Danielson said, "There is not magic in the name of a model; only in fidelity to the essentials of quality teaching." And, by the way, stating that "lack of motivation and effort on the student's part" is a reason for that student being academically at-risk" is, at the least, unsophisitcated and, at worst, dangerous. Deficiencies in
movtivation and effort are no different than deficiencies in reading and math. A good teacher recoginizes these, too, are prerequisites for academic success and, therefore, their responsibility to address.

Posted by: tedhaynie | November 16, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Crimson wife - is it okay to call kids dumb if they're rich?

Tedhaynie - is it implicit that kids who need our help are kids we have failed? Can we take responsibility for helping them without taking responsibility for their failure?

Are teachers responsible for imparting content knowledge in reading and math also responsible for imparting motivation and effort to their students? Should all a teacher's students have the same high achievement level and motivation and effort in order for the teacher to be considered adequate?

Posted by: efavorite | November 16, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

A rose is a rose is a rose. Unless it is euphemism, of course.

Does changing "at risk" to "at promise" help? Well, first of all, "at promise" is idiomatically awkward. I believe the more common usage would be "of promise".

Second, the idea that changing a word changes our thoughts was floated by Messrs. Sapir and Whorf a long time ago and is rightly called "The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". Note, the word "hypothesis". It is not called the "Sapir-Whorf Incredibly True and Always Right Principle".

Still, there are many examples -- see Frank Luntz and that other guy, the Liberal -- where "reframing" an "issue" through a metaphor does indeed have the power to move the political meter to one side or another.

That having been said, re-labeling a group of human beings, especially those who have been labeled by so many awful things throughout their lives, probably won't make much of a difference. After all, a label is a label is a label. Unless it's a euphemism, of course.

Posted by: StevePeha | November 16, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

"At promise" is certainly more positive but we still will have the "redbird" reading group and the "bluebirds" and the "yellowbirds" and they will know exactly who the "smart" or "top" group is and who the "low" or "dumb" group is. Actions speak louder than terminology. Love your students--Have faith in your students---encourage your students---and never, never underestimate the intelligence of a failing or "at risk" child.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | November 16, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

efavorite- while a teacher or parent should NEVER call an individual child dumb, we all know that some kids really ARE dumb. Just like some kids are clumsy, tone deaf, or other negative descriptor. Let's call a spade a spade in the hypothetical but be nice when it comes to specific individuals.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 16, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

At promise seems more an attempt to promote positive attitudes among the adults rather than accurately label groups of struggling students. The number of negatives that impact on academically failing students is extensive. Unfortunately educators influence stops at the end of the school day and promise takes a big hit until the next morning.

Posted by: jaysue | November 17, 2009 5:40 AM | Report abuse

rifraf - Bless your heart, IQ is not a valid measurement of intelligence. Do some actual reading.
Poondora's reference to the quadrant monitoring tool is very insightful. For example, although all children/people react, process and function in different ways, research has shown that grief, depression, hunger, physical abuse, etc., actually impedes new learning by bolstering and molding the brain's "wiring" that is specific to daily survival. This CAN BE in direct conflict to a classroom demand of learning how to use prepositions or apply multiple-step math equations. Sorry to say, but our "instant gratification" society has contaminated many educational and financial institutions; churches; families; and parents. Actual, hands-on, ethically-guided, and appropriately engaged parenting is often a pleasant surprise to come across. Engineering a solid economic/employment base for mid- to low-income communities to build upon would go a long way to supporting "healthy" and viable families, i.e., healthy, learning-ready kids.

Posted by: listening4 | November 17, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

To listening4,
Thank you for your blessing, but actually I am quite well informed about what I commented on. I have a doctoral degree and I have read many hundreds of articles in the modern scientific journal literature on the topic of human intelligence. IQ-tests and other similar cognitive tests (including most standardized academic achievement tests in math, language, and science) are actually very good measures of intelligence, there are no better methods known.

There is a scandalous level of intellectual corruption in the mainstream social sciences because in modern western societies the intelligentsia has adopted Boasian equalitarianism as a new secular religious dogma; however Boasianism is based upon some scientifically false precepts. Any person who dares to challenge the reigning Boasian dogma is labelled a racist (a heretic) whose sinful views are duly censored.

The standard mainsteam Boasian social science doctrine goes like this [with the actual scientific truth following in brackets]:

1)Variation in IQ-type intelligence is mostly due to environmental parenting effects and the genetic parenting effects are minimal. [Behavioral genetics studies have proven that the opposite is actually true.]

2)The IQ of poor children is just as high as that of children from upscale homes. [IQ, a strongly heritable mental trait, is neccessary for educational attainment which is a major factor in attained social class, no surprise therefore that the children of higher-SES parents have much higher IQs than the children of lower-SES parents.]

3) There are no significant differences in IQ-type intelligence between different ethnoracial groups. [The differing academic performance levels of ethnoracial groups are highly correlated with their differing average IQs, which are approximately: Black 85, Hispanic 88, Non-Jewish White 100, East Asian 106, Jewish 112.]

4) Black students show poor academic performance mainly because they attend shabby schools with bad curricula and bad unmotivated teachers. [The facts are that even when Black students live in upscale suburbs (e.g. Ogbu's study of Shaker Heights) or when they are bussed to highly-regarded majority white schools, the Blacks still tend to show very low performance--again indicating that it is their lower IQs which is the salient factor.]

Posted by: rifraf | November 17, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Crimsonwife - thanks for getting back to me. In answer to my question, is it okay to call kids dumb if they're rich? The other side of that question, if you decide to address it, is - is it okay to call kids dumb if they're poor?

And to be quite candid - this is what I suspect -- you wouldn't have used the word "dumb" in relation to poor kids, because it could be perceived as insulting to them and you have no desire to insult them. It's okay to use it with rich kids because they are perceived to have higher self-esteem which would make them less susceptible to insult.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

rifraf - sigh. Please post your cited "scientific truth" references. If you have ISBN numbers, all the better.
The thing is, in every country where the majority population is institutionally discriminatory towards a minority population there exists your "IQ" strata/ difference. The "Untouchables" in East India. The Ainu in Japan; the Aborigines in Australia; the Inuit in Canada. . . Race is a SOCIAL construct with no biological structure (Jewish heritage is based on culture and religion; not "race"); therefore, it stands to reason that "IQ" measurements, per your opinion/use, are social in their development as well.
The absolute reliance on quantifying racial differences on "IQ" tests (the best we have, or not) is dangerous and scientifically irresponsible; it borders on eugenics.

Posted by: listening4 | November 17, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Rifraf – I think the real problem with the IQ info is how to properly apply it, given that well-meaning people are afraid it will stifle opportunity and create a permanent underclass and a caste system based on IQ. I think that attitude shows a distinct lack of imagination. Once we accept that there are obvious differences among us (and not just in IQ) we as a society could work to make sure all people have the very best opportunity to meet their potential.

Easier said than done, of course, and I think it will require a major consciousness-raising effort. But I think we’re going nowhere fast as long as we keep repeating the pretty lie about closing the achievement gap. No one ever talks about closing the musical talent gap or the athletic prowess gap, but we still encourage music and sports among kids who are never expected to be top performers. We need to do the same thing with reading, writing and arithmetic.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

There are dumb poor kids, dumb middle class kids, and dumb rich kids. With poor kids, though, it is more difficult to distinguish the influence of an unfavorable environment from simple low intellectual potential.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 17, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

listening4 - your recent comments are a perfect example of why I think consciousness raising is so essential. [N.B. I wrote my comments before seeing yours.] Seems to me that you are making all sorts of conclusions on what has happened or what could happen if we consider IQ as a factor in learning.

Where rifraf says "tends" you say "absolute" and "eugenics" in a way that I'm afraid stops the conversation before it can begin.

Why is it so hard to think in shades of gray? Maybe it's a special talent I have....

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

to efavorite:
I agree with most of what you said.

to listening4:
"Race is a SOCIAL construct with no biological structure (Jewish heritage is based on culture and religion; not "race");" I was talking about ethnoracial groups, Jewish refers both to a religion and to an ethnicity (the Jews were highly endogamous for thousands of years). The notion that "Race is a SOCIAL construct with no biological structure" is just a ruse that Boasians have erected hoping to distract people from the truth. Notice that the world's largest human genetic variation study, the HapMap project, uses racial categories to organize their data, but they just rename the ethnoracial groups as "human populations" (but most everybody in the scientific community realizes that the "human population" categories are just euphemisms for "ethnoracial groups").

You apparently have access to an academic library. If you grow tired of drinking the environmentalist/Boasian Koolaid, here are some hereditarian/Galtonian scholars you could read and I am certain you would then get a better grasp of the truth:
Arthur Jensen, Sandra Scarr, David C. Rowe, Thomas Bouchard, Matt McGue, Nancy Segal, David Lubinski, John DeFries, Ian Deary, Robert Plomin, Stephen Petrill, Dorret Boomsma, Nick Martin, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, Steven Pinker, Henry Harpending, Linda Gottfredson, J. Philippe Rushton, Richard Lynn.

Posted by: rifraf | November 17, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

to rifraf:

"Finally, the results of the Project could be misinterpreted to imply that constructs such as "race" are precise and highly meaningful biological categories. In fact, the information emerging from the Project is helping to demonstrate that common ideas about race emerge largely from social and cultural interactions and are only loosely connected to biological ancestry," the HapMap Project.

Posted by: musica1 | November 18, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

- I read that statement from hapmap several times and still don't get it, which is a good sign that it doesn't make much sense. It sounds like it's been reworked to be politically correct to the point of being meaningless. What I think it's doing is confusing words and concepts so the project won't be construed as being racist by today's political standards.

The second part makes sense to me "common ideas about race emerge largely from social and cultural interactions and are only loosely connected to biological ancestry" but it seems unconnected to the first part, which seems to try to convince the reader that there are no meaningful racial (in the biological sense) differences among people. Yes, "common ideas" i.e. prejudices, about race aren't connected to biological ancestry, but the scientific notion of race (or whatever you want to call it) definitely is.

Posted by: efavorite | November 19, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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