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BARRIERS TO LOW ACHIEVERS' SUCCESS IN THE ELEMENTARY
CLASSROOM AS PERCEIVED BY TEACHERS: A QUALITATIVE STUDY
KELLY ANNE VANAUKER-ERGLE
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Kelly Anne VanAuker-Ergle
I would first like to thank my parents who have always given me unwavering
support in the pursuit all of my dreams and who have been especially patient and
generous in my academic endeavors. My mother Fay has spent tremendous amounts of
time reading, re-reading, and critiquing this work as well as lending me her brilliant
insights and ideas and for this I am very grateful. I would like to thank my father Richard
for always instilling in me that I could do whatever I set my mind to--even during those
times he was less than thrilled about what my mind was set on. Special thanks go to my
husband Kevin, who has patiently and lovingly given me the space and time needed to
complete this endeavor and continues to love me despite the fact that chaos has been the
rule, not the exception, since the day we met.
In addition, I would like to acknowledge and thank my dissertation committee
members, Mary Ellen Young, Ph.D., Elizabeth Swett, Ph.D., Kay Walker, Ph.D. and
David Honeyman, Ph.D., for their contributions and support of this project. Special
thanks go to Dr. Linda Shaw, my committee chair, who has shown great balance and
sensitivity in her ability to set me free to work in my own unique way and reign me in
when needed. Her patience, understanding and generous sharing of her knowledge and
time allowed me to establish my own meandering path throughout this journey.
To Jim at ETD, I would like to say thank you for pulling this final project together.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iii
LIST OF FIGURE S ......... ..................................... ........... vii
A B S T R A C T .......................................... .................................................. v iii
1 INTRODUCTION ............... ................. ........... ................. ... ..... 1
2 D E FIN ITIO N S ................... .... ................................ .. ........ ....... .. .. ..6
3 LITER A TU RE REV IEW .................................................. ............................... 8
Children Who Are Low Achievers and Special Education Eligibility .........................8
Children Who Are Low Achievers Compared to Students Classified as LD........9
Children Who Are Low Achievers Compared to Children Classified as
M M R ................... .......................... ..... ....... ............ .................. 17
Alternatives To Current Special Education Assessment ................. ............. .....18
The World Health Organization Model of Disability..............................................20
A Comparison of Two Disability Classification Systems: United States
Educational System vs. ICF .................................. ....... .... .......................... 23
Social Emotional Indicators in Children Who Are Low Achievers .........................28
Characteristics of Children Who Are Low Achievers..............................................29
Short and Long-term Outcomes for Students At Risk.................... ... .............32
Legislation and Education ................................................................................... 33
Low Achievement, Retention, and Dropping Out of School................................38
Characteristics of Children W ho Drop Out ..................................... ............... 40
Approaches to Educating Children With Low Achievement ...................................41
Self-Efficacy and Academ ic Success ........................................ ...... ............... 42
S u m m a ry ............................................................................................................... 4 3
4 M ATERIALS AND M ETHODS ........................................ ......................... 45
P a rtic ip a n ts ........................................................................................................... 4 5
M a te ria ls ...........................................................................4 7
D design and Procedure ....................................................... ................. 48
A n aly sis ..............................................................................4 9
5 R E SU L T S ....................................................... 57
The Fam ily ................... ..... .... ................. .......... ........................ 58
How Home-life Affects Education .......................... ............. .. ............... 59
Lack of M money .......................... .... .. .................. ......... ....... ......... ..... 60
L a c k o f T im e ................................................................................................. 6 1
Other Factors in the H om e ............................................................................ 62
H om e L ife Sum m ary ..........................................................................................63
Classroom Needs of the Child Who is a Low Achiever .................. ..................66
Repetition and Reinforcement............... ........... ........... .............. ....... 66
Explicit Instruction ............................................. .. ....... .. ........ .... 67
Individual A ttention........... ...................................................... .. .... .... .....68
Variety of M odalities................... ... .. ... ..... ............................69
A Comparison of Research Findings and Classroom Observations ..................71
Tim e in the C classroom ............... ................................................ .... ........ .. 73
The Self Esteem of Children Who Are Low Achievers ..........................................79
How Low Self Esteem Affects the Classroom Performance of Children Who
A re L ow A chievers ........................ ..................... ......... ...... .......... .... 86
How Teachers Address Low Self Esteem in Children With Low
A chievem ent .................. ............................................................ 88
The Behavior of Children Who Are Low Achievers in the Classroom...................90
Measuring the Classroom "Success" of Children Who are Low Achievers
(P a rt I) ............................................................................. 9 3
H igh Stakes T testing .............. ............ .................... .. .. .............. .. ........ .....97
Measuring the Classroom Success of Children Who Are Low Achievers
(P a rt II) ........................................................................................1 0 6
S o lu tio n s ...............................................................................................1 0 9
C classroom Structure ............................ ................ .................. ............... 109
T teacher Training ..................................... ......... ...... .. .......... .... 113
Parental Training ................................................. .. .. .... .. ............ 115
Educational Options .................. ........................... .. .. ................. 117
Professional A assistance ......................................................... .............. 118
T he System .................. ................. ................... ...................... ....... 120
Summary of Factors Affecting the Academic Success of Children Who Are Low
A chievers .......................................... ................ .. ............ 124
The H om e Environm ent ......................................................... ............. 124
The School Environment............................................................. ............ 125
Emotions of Children Who Are Low Achievers ..............................................126
T h e Sy stem ......... ................ ........... .............. ................ .... ....... 12 7
Low Achievement from the ICF Perspective ............................... ...............128
6 DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH..................... 130
Families of Children W ho Are Low Achievers ................................................132
The Educational System .............................................................................. 137
Teacher Training .................. .................. ............................ 137
Towards a More Unified Educational System .......................................139
H igh Stakes Testing ............................................................................140
Changing the Form at of Services ............. .......................... .................142
A IN TERVIEW GUIDELINE............................................. ............................. 145
B RESEARCHER SUBJECTIVITY STATEMENT............................146
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ......... .. ............. ............................................................. 149
BIO GR A PH ICA L SK ETCH .................................... ........... ......................................162
LIST OF FIGURES
3-1 The model for International Classification of Functioning, Disability and
H health .............................................................................. 2 1
4-1 Overview of teacher interview participants .......... ... ......... .. ................47
5-1 Negative influences on the success of children who are low achievers in the
elem entry classroom ........ ............. ............ ................58
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
BARRIERS TO LOW ACHIEVERS' SUCCESS IN THE ELEMENTARY
CLASSROOM AS PERCEIVED BY TEACHERS: A QUALITATIVE STUDY
Kelly Anne VanAuker-Ergle
Chair: Linda Shaw
Major Department: Rehabilitation Science
The purpose of this study was to explore the barriers to success that children who
have low achievement encounter in the elementary classroom as perceived by elementary
school teachers. A qualitative research design was used. Ten elementary teachers were
interviewed and three children with low achievement were observed. Interviews were
formatted to evoke teacher responses addressing the presence and description of barriers
to success experienced by low achieving children in the classroom, common
characteristics of low achievers, teacher perceptions of self-efficacy in teaching children
with low achievement and teacher viewpoints on the impact that federal and state
educational policies have on teaching practices and personal feelings. Results of this
study indicate that barriers to success for children with low achievement exist in both the
home and the educational system. Home barriers include a lack of parental involvement
in education, parents sending negative messages regarding education and a lack of
parental ability to assist children with homework. Educational system barriers include a
lack of appropriate teacher training, a fast paced curriculum, the use of high stakes tests,
inadequate school staffing and a lack of policy maker understanding of the academic
needs of children with low achievement. In addition, participants indicated that children
with low achievement tend to have low self-esteem, a need for extra educational time and
attention and a need for specific learning strategies such as hands-on and experiential
learning. Implications for future research are discussed and include a need to investigate
the adequacy of higher education teacher training programs in preparing teachers for the
"realities" of day to day teaching, increased parental and policy maker accountability for
the success of children with low achievement, educational alternatives for children who
are low achievers, alternative classroom structures and teaching models and methods to
increase teacher participation in the process of educational policy development.
Children who are low achievers generally have a below average (100) IQ and
struggle in the classroom to keep up with general academic requirements (Gresham,
MacMillan & Bocian, 1996; Kavale, Fuchs & Scruggs, 1994; Epps Yssledyke & McGue,
1984). Low achievers typically do not qualify for special education services because they
do not meet the 70 or below IQ requirement for mentally retarded or the IQ/achievement
discrepancy for learning disabled classification (Gresham, MacMillan & Bocian, 1996;
Kavale, Fuchs & Scruggs, 1994; Epps, Yssledyke & McGue, 1984). Researchers point
out that based on a normal distribution, 50% of children function in the below average
intellectual range (99 and below IQ) (Gresham et al., 1996), and that 14% of those
children function in the borderline intellectual range (70-85 IQ) (Shaw, 1999). Children
whose IQ falls in the borderline range comprise a larger population of children than those
with learning disabilities, mental retardation and autism combined (Shaw, 1999). This
indicates a large number of children of below average intelligence who are not typically
classified as educable mentally handicapped.
Low Achieving children account for a large number of school drop outs, unwed
teen mothers, illicit drug users, functionally illiterate persons, incarcerated persons,
unemployed, underemployed, violent offenders, alcohol abusers, school failures, low
scorers on group tests and gang and hate group members (Shaw, 1999). Despite these
ramifications of poor school performance, research on academically struggling children
has typically focused on specific minority groups or special education classifications,
rather than all children who have difficulty in the classroom (Schroth, 1976; Mickelson,
1990; Murphy, 1986: Daniel, 1964; Spilerman, 1971). Low achievers as a group have
been described primarily as children who do not perform well in the classroom (Griffen,
1978; Hargis, 1997; Lehr, 1988). There is a lack of research investigating the
characteristics of children who are low achievers other than poor academic performance
This study will investigate the barriers children who are low achievers face in the
classroom as perceived by the teachers charged with educating these struggling learners.
Understanding teacher perspective of this phenomenon is crucial. Because these children
typically do not qualify for special education services, regular education teachers are held
primarily responsible for their education. How children who are low achievers are taught
and the environment in which the teaching takes place is guided by the classroom
Research has shown that teacher perceptions of self-efficacy (an individual's own
belief that he or she is able to successfully carry out certain behaviors that will result in a
desired outcome (Bandura, 1977a, 1977b), positively correlate with their students'
achievement (Allinder, 1995; Ashton & Webb, 1986). Unfortunately, no research could
be found that asked teachers to explain, from their own perspective, the classroom needs
of children who are low achievers and teachers' feelings regarding their ability to meet
those needs. What we do know about the interaction between teachers and children who
are low achievers in the classroom is that these children are often called on less
frequently, seated further from the teacher, given less feedback, given fewer work
standards, praised less frequently and have less academic learning time (Kerman, 1979;
Good, 1981; Evertson, 1982; Murphy, Hallinger & Lotto, 1986; Wehlage, Rutter &
Turnbaugh, 1987). The reason for these behaviors has not been investigated and may
conceivably be rooted in teacher perceptions of these children's needs and teachers'
beliefs regarding their ability to meet those needs. In either case, it is vital to first
investigate what teachers perceive as being the barriers to the academic success of
children who are low achievers before efforts can be undertaken to address how teachers
can successfully cope with those barriers in the classroom.
Another important issue related to teacher perceptions that has not been
investigated is the impact of current educational mandates that directly relate to low
achieving children. The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) passed by the U.S. federal
government has mandated sweeping educational reform. As part of this reform, school
accountability for student achievement is currently expected to be measured on a yearly
basis, through the use of standardized testing. States will be expected to establish
measurable educational goals for students and schools will be expected to publicly
disclose the progress and achievement levels of their students (National Education
Association [NEA], 2003). The NEA describes these new federal mandates as affecting
teachers in that they will
.be given short time lines and few resources-to again shift the emphasis of what
students will learn and when. Among issues that teachers and schools must face:
* Have federal and state policymakers made it clear what expectations are-in terms
that can be translated to curriculum, books, materials and classroom practices?
* Have federal or state or local policymakers provided the resources-time and
money-to adjust to the new expectations?
* Are there sufficient resources-in terms of qualified teachers, appropriate class size
and material-to help all students meet the new standards? (National Education
Association [NEA], 2003)
These new requirements increase the importance of attending to the needs of
children who are low achievers because now teachers and schools will be held
accountable for these students meeting specified educational goals and making adequate
yearly progress. By definition, children who are low achievers are just that--students
who are slower to make academic achievement. They are the students who likely have a
great amount of difficulty meeting educational standards. It is especially important to
assess teacher perceptions of these students' needs because the academic progress of
these children will be carefully monitored. Difficulties teachers encounter when teaching
these students may have more significance because schools that do not report adequate
student progress are required to be subject to federal and state "consequences" (NEA,
2003). The new, stricter accountability requirements could possibly affect how prepared
teachers feel they are to meet the needs of children who are low achievers, resulting in a
decreased sense of self-efficacy. This is especially problematic given the earlier
discussed link between student success and teacher sense of self-efficacy.
In summary, the need for research on children who are low achievers is critical
because of the large number of children that are affected, the societal repercussions that
result from poor education, the financial investment in social programs that these children
often access once they are adults and the increased political focus on educational
accountability and raising educational standards. It is critical to gain a clearer
understanding of the barriers that impact these children's education so that successful
school-based interventions can be implemented, thereby avoiding the long-term cycle of
personal, social and financial difficulties for both the individual child and society at large.
Teachers are central to the education process and its measured success. An
examination of teacher perceptions regarding the barriers faced in educating students who
struggle most in the classroom and perceived teacher self efficacy in dealing with those
barriers is integral to the development of successful teacher training programs and
techniques that effectively address the needs of children who are low achievers.
This study will investigate the following research question: What are the barriers to
academic success for children who are low achievers in the elementary classroom as
perceived by teachers?
Terms used in this dissertation are defined below.
Dropout Prevention (DP)--A term used by participants to describe classrooms
comprised of students who are perceived to be at risk for drop out such as children who
are low achievers and retained students. Students are purposefully selected by school
staff and administrators to be placed in DP classrooms.
Educable Mentally Handicapped (EMH)-- A disability classification that generally
includes individuals whose IQ is in the 55 70 range and who have academic
performance commensurate with their IQ (American Association of Mental Retardation,
Exceptional Student Education (ESE)-- Programs that provide educational services
to students who qualify for special needs assistance in the classroom.
Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT)-- A test required in the state of
Florida to monitor educational progress and used to make student progression decisions
in some grades.
Individual Education Plan (IEP)-- A formal educational plan developed for students
participating in special education that outlines the interventions and accommodations to
be implemented for the student as well as educational goals.
Intelligence Quotient (IQ)-- As measured by standardized testing instruments, this
measure is most often used in the educational system to predict academic potential.
Learning Disabled (LD)--A disability classification. The Federal Guidelines for
LD generally stipulate that children can be classified as LD if they show achievement
levels below that of their peer group and have a severe discrepancy between their
intellectual level and achievement level (US Office of Education, 1977).
Low Achieving-- Typically defined as students who have an IQ of 75-89, perform
below grade level academically and who do not meet the 70 or below IQ requirement for
mentally handicapped or the IQ/achievement discrepancy requirement for learning
disabled classification (Gresham, MacMillan & Bocian, 1996; Kavale, Fuchs & Scruggs,
1994; Epps, Yssledyke & McGue, 1984).
Mild Mental Retardation (MMR)-- Alternate terminology for EMH.
Self-efficacy -- An individual's own belief that he or she is able to successfully
carry out certain behaviors that will result in a desired outcome (Bandura, 1977a, 1977b).
Children Who Are Low Achievers and Special Education Eligibility
Children who are low achievers tend to hover on the borderline of being eligible for two
special education classifications: learning disabled (LD) and educable mentally
handicapped (EMH). Both of these classifications are somewhat controversial regarding
the appropriateness and accuracy of classification guidelines (Epps, Ysseldyke & McGue,
1984; MacMillan, Gresham, Siperstein, Bocian, 1996; Mercer, Hughes & Mercer, 1985).
Because the guidelines for eligibility differ from state to state, children who are low
achievers can sometimes qualify for one of these programs depending on the stringency
of the eligibility guidelines (Kidder-Ashley, Deni & Anderton, 2000). Often, the
difference between eligible and ineligible may be a difference of one or two points on a
psychometric test (Epps, Ysseldyke, Algozzine, 1985). Consequently, it seems reasonable
to conclude that low achieving children and children who qualify for special education
programs may have similar needs and difficulties and could benefit from similar services.
A limited amount of research has been conducted on children who are low
achievers and their status in relationship to the special education classifications. In
addition, the conclusions reached in the available research are variable and sometimes
contradictory. There is a plethora of information regarding abilities, characteristics and
various statistics on individuals who are EMH and LD but little about how children who
are low achievers, who do not quite fit the respective profiles, fare in the education
Children Who Are Low Achievers Compared to Students Classified as LD
The proportion of students nationwide that is currently being served by federally
supported programs for persons with disabilities in the category of LD is 6.05% or
2,834,000 children. This number has been steadily increasing over the past 25 years and
represents the largest proportion of students served in any one disability category
(National Center for Educational Statistics Condition of Education, 2000, table 52, p. 68).
The federal guidelines for LD generally stipulate that children can be classified as
LD if they show achievement levels below that of their peer group and have a severe
discrepancy between their intellectual level and achievement level (US Department of
Education, 1977). Several researchers have criticized the ways in which these guidelines
have been interpreted and operationalized, and even dispute definitions of the term
learning disabled (Gresham, Macmillan & Bocian, 1996; Epps, Ysseldyke & Algozzine,
1985; Macmillan, Siperstein & Bocian 1996, Belmont & Belmont, 1980). Ysseldyke,
Algozzine, Shinn and McGue (1982) published a highly controversial research study
examining the similarities and differences between students who are LD and low
achieving. They expressed concern that the classification of students as LD is, in
practice, based primarily on academic underachievement and largely ignores the federal
requirement of significant discrepancies between IQ and achievement. Both the
Ysseldyke et al. study as well as a response to that study will be described in some detail
to elucidate some of the controversies that surround this research topic.
In selecting group participants, Ysseldyke et al. (1982) defined the low achieving
group (LA) as having achievement scores at or below the 25th percentile on the Iowa
Tests of Basic Skills; the LD group had already been identified by their schools as
learning disabled with no further explanation provided as to how schools came to that
classification decision. The groups were not matched for demographic variables. For the
purposes of their study, the researchers opted to define the federal guideline term "severe
discrepancy" in three ways: 1) a discrepancy of 1 standard deviation between IQ and
achievement scores, 2) a discrepancy of 1.5 standard deviations between IQ and
achievement or 3) a 2 standard deviation discrepancy between IQ and achievement.
These definitions are important because the interpretation of the term "severe
discrepancy" is at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding classification.
Ysseldyke et al. also compared the discrepancy between the average achievement of the
child's age group and the child's actual achievement scores-- ignoring IQ.
Results of this study showed that when LD and LA groups were compared using
measures of discrepancy between intelligence and achievement, no significant differences
were identified. However, statistical analysis of individual scores showed that the LD
group tended to score significantly lower than the LA group on ten Woodcock Johnson
Tests of Achievement subtests. It was also found that LD groups scored significantly
poorer on PIAT (Peabody Individual Achievement Test) subtests and were rated by
teachers as having more behavioral problems than the LA group. Despite these findings,
Ysseldyke et. al (1982) concluded that LD and LA groups were more alike than different.
When looking at misclassification of students based on ability/achievement and
achievement/average achievement, the researchers found that anywhere from 50% 57%
of children were misclassified. This was found to be a problem with both incorrectly
identifying students as LD when they were not and not identifying students as LD when
they actually were. The researchers point out that, depending on which side of the
argument one is on, it could be correctly asserted that there are many students being
under-identified that should receive services, or that there are too many students being
incorrectly identified and receiving services when they should not. As stated by the
Ysseldyke group (1982), there is "little wonder that considerable confusion exists
regarding identification ofLD students. One need only to pick one's argument, and then
use a cutoff score that will produce data to support it" (p. 83).
The generalizability of this study may be a point of weakness due to the lack of
racial or ethnic information on the subjects and the high average achievement scores
obtained by both of the groups on the PIAT total test score. The LD group had a mean
score of 100.61 while the non-LD group had a mean score of 91.90. Even if one assesses
the groups' performance on the individual achievement tests, scores ranged from 95 to
104 for the LD group and 88-96 for the non-LD group. The fairly high scores on
academic measures for both groups (in the average range) are unusual when looking at
children who by definition should display low academic achievement.
The article considered the primary criticism to Ysseldyke et al. (1982) was
authored by Kavale, Fuchs and Scruggs (1994). They argue that the Ysseldyke et al.
article is misinterpreted and that the conclusion that LD and low achievement cannot be
clearly distinguished is erroneous. Kavale et al. outline several areas of that research that
they believe are misleading and erroneous. The first of these areas is the assertion by
Ysseldyke et al. that LD and LA groups had a 97% overlap on 49 psychometric
measures. The Kavale group does not doubt the veracity of this finding, but suggests that
the 1 and 1 1/2 standard deviations of discrepancy used by the Ysseldyke group are too
lenient and not stringent enough to detect a difference in performance (the study by
Ysseldyke et al. found no subjects that were 2 standard deviations below the mean).
They feel that the standard deviations used are so narrow that there should be no surprise
that there is significant overlap between the two groups. The Kavale group also asserts
that when scores were calculated for overlap, only one group's variability was considered
while the other group's scores were forced into that distribution. They suggest that if the
LA group was selected as the comparison group and it contained both the highest and
lowest scores for the entire sample, then the LD group, having no outlying scores, would
look like it had 100% overlap. Using the data from the Ysseldyke et al. study and using
effect size (ES) statistics, Kavale et al. reanalyzed the data presented in the study. They
felt that this type of statistical analysis yielded much more discriminate data between the
two groups. ES levels showed that when looking at 44 of the measures, 63% of the LD
group could be differentiated from LA. Using ES in examining individual Woodcock-
Johnson performance, it was shown that on average 68% of the LD group was
distinguishable from the LA group. When looking at only the achievement subtests on
the Woodcock-Johnson, this number jumped to 78% of the LD subjects being
distinguishable from the LA group. On the PIAT, Kavale found that ES yielded an 87%
differentiation rate between the two groups. On all of the above re-analyses, the LD
subjects performed significantly lower than the LA subjects.
Another criticism by Kavale et al. (1994) of the Ysseldyke et al. (1982) study is the
use of discrepancy as the sole determinant of LD. Kavale et al. maintains that while low
achievement is integral to LD classification, "it should not be synonymous with LD" (p.
72). Some consider the use of discrepancy as the sole determinate of LD inappropriate
and feel that diagnosis should extend beyond achievement discrepancy to more functional
measures such as behavior rating scales, parent-teacher reports, social skills rating
systems and measures of processing deficits (Gresham, McMillan & Bocian, 1996;
Kavale & Forness 2000; Shaywitz, Fletcher, Holohan & Shaywitz, 1992). Conversely,
other researchers view the discrepancy model as the most reliable measure to distinguish
LD from problems stemming from lack of motivation, interest or poor ability (Siegel,
Kavale et al. (1994) also point to policy issues as the key to why the study by the
Ysseldyke (1982) group is both so misinterpreted and, at the same time, frequently cited
to support positions of LD not being a distinguishable classification of disability. They
contend that proponents of the recent movement toward inclusion and unified schools
need data to support their position. To say that there are no real differences between LD
and low achievement implies that there is little basis for providing special programming
for LD. Indeed, there are researchers that believe that special classes for some disabilities
should be disbanded and that all children should be educated by learning specialists who
are schooled in addressing the various types of learning problems (NASP, 2002; Peetsma,
2001; Smith & Dowdy, 1998). Kavale et al. contend that research conclusions such as
the Ysseldyke group's lend support to this theory and therefore become politically
popular while the soundness of the conclusions is questioned very little. In reference to
the purpose of research on LD, Kavale et al. state in their rebuttal, "The goal should be a
complete description of LD that moves away from mindless statistical manipulations
using a single problematic notion (i.e., discrepancy) that presumably 'defines' LD" (p.
These two studies exemplify the fundamental problems that are encountered when
attempting to differentiate LD from non-LD students. The first is how the disability
criteria are going to be operationalized. In this case, the federal guideline terminology
severe discrepancy leaves one to question exactly how severe is severe. This is evident
in the Ysseldyke et al. (1982) investigation of three separate criteria as well as their
choice to pick the least stringent criteria on which to base their conclusions. A study by
Kidder-Ashley et al. (2000) examined the special education eligibility process for a
learning disability (LD) in 40 states. The results illuminate how extensive the problem
with consistency has become. These researchers reported evidence that
* 4 states ignored the federal definition requirement of a neurological basis and the
psychological process component of LD
* To determine academic discrepancies, 38 states used discrepancy based models: 14
did not specify a formula, 3 states used expectancy formula (achievement less than
or equal to 50% of expected achievement), 5 states used regression formulas and
one state used the difference between highest and lowest academic achievement
* 16 states used a standard deviation formula to determine IQ/achievement
discrepancy. Of these states, 5 required a 1.0 standard deviation; 5 required 1.5
deviation and 6 had some other standard score requirement.
* 72% of the states did not consider a child LD if the learning problem was based on
poor prior educational experiences, while the remaining states did not consider this
* 2 states required that there be variability in different achievement areas (ex: high
math/low reading); 29 states required deficits to be in one or more area with no
comparison between areas; and 7 states made no mention of variability between
When these same researchers randomly selected six eligibility models and applied
them to 15 hypothetical cases, there was eligibility agreement on only 4 of the cases (all
for non-placement in LD). Clearly, lack of uniformity and consistency is a problem
between individual state education models of disability eligibility.
The second problem with research directed at disability classification in the school
system, and commented on by Kavale et al. (1994), is the political climate. Research
findings can impact how educational services are delivered to students who qualify for
special education. Findings that reflect little differentiation between children having
difficulty in school support the position of those in favor of inclusive classrooms where
all children are taught together. Conversely, those who favor pullout programs and
separate special education classrooms would benefit from findings that indicate clear and
significant differences between groups of struggling schoolchildren. Kavale et al. point
out that research sponsored by strong supporters of either opinion is suspect because of
the likelihood of biased results or interpretation.
The third difficulty encountered in determining LD classification is determining
which factors to consider in subject selection. This difficulty is addressed less often but is
still of importance to researchers regarding disability group differentiation because there
is evidence that socioeconomic and racial factors negatively affect achievement in school
(Spilerman, 1971; Murphy, 1986; Murguia & Telles, 1996). In the IDEA Amendments
of 1997, it was reported that while African American students comprised about 16% of
the school population, they represented 21% of the students enrolled in special education.
Research on the discrepancies between average white and black scores has also shown
that there is a cultural bias inherently present in many popular measures of IQ (Rushton
& Skuy, 2000; Fagan & Holland, 2002). Issues such as these bring into question the
validity of standardized tests in measuring learning ability or achievement. Questions
arise as to whether the results reflect pure learning constructs or are instead influenced by
cultural or racial differences.
Another aspect of the LD controversy is reflected in research examining the
achievement levels of students who are identified as below grade level in early
elementary years. Belmont and Belmont (1980) reviewed literature that, in addition to
their own research, supports a view that there is a difference between children who are
"temporarily failing" and those who will have more chronic failure (Belmont & Belmont,
1978; Gottesman, Belmont & Kaminer, 1975; Belmont and Birch, 1974). They describe
these temporary failures as children who display poor reading skills during early
elementary years, but who, without intervention, will be within the normal range (albeit
low normal) of achievement in late elementary and early middle school years. They feel
that "learning disabled" is a classification that should be examined as a developmental,
long-term condition and that a "snapshot" of a child at any particular time could very
well lead to misdiagnosis as learning disabled. They contend that fluctuations in ability
level are normal among all children, but that children who are functioning at the low end
of normal ability level are more likely to be "failing" at different times. In other words,
having a normal developmental lag period with a 100 IQ might mean achieving at only
the 80% level. Having a lag period in development with an 80 IQ may mean achieving at
the 60% level. Belmont and Belmont assert that the diagnosis of a learning disability
should be based on children's performance over a relatively long period of time to see if
their performance is just a normal part of development or if it improves over time. While
in theory this appears sound, it does not address the consequences for children who are
indeed LD and cannot get help or interventions until 5th or 6th grade when they have
"proven" their inability to cope with regular instruction in the classroom. It is interesting
to note that in their article, Belmont and Belmont list as one of their concerns situations
in which there may be "serious negative educational, social, and emotional consequences
to designating a child as learning disabled which outweigh the gains accruing from such
labeling." They do not appear to have considered the consequences of being a child
whose early educational experiences consist of a requirement to fail year after year until
they have been a "successful failure" long enough to be classified as LD under the above
recommendations. The implications of long-term failure will be discussed later, but it is
a point worth considering when using long-term failure as primary criteria for
differentiating LD and LA.
Children Who Are Low Achievers Compared to Children Classified as MMR
Mental retardation is defined by the American Association of Mental Retardation
(2003) as "a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual
functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical
adaptive skills." The 1992 educational eligibility criteria for intellectual functioning and
adaptive behavior are consistent with the American Association of Mental Retardation
1992 classification guidelines for mental retardation (Luckasson et. al, 1992). These
guidelines include, as part of the criteria for mild mental handicap, an intelligence level
of 70 or below (which is 2 standard deviations below the mean of 100). Shaw (1999)
reviewed the changes that have taken place in the definition of MMR. He points out that
From 1959 to 1953, the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD; now
the American Association of Mental Retardation) considered all persons with
intelligence test scores between 70 and 85 to have Borderline MentalRetardation.
In 1973, AAMD changed the upper intelligence test score limits for mental
retardation to two standard deviations below the mean. In effect, every person with
intelligence test scores between 70 and 85, over 75% of the population previously
diagnosed with Mental Retardation, was suddenly no longer considered
handicapped. Two years later, P.L. 94-142 was passed into law. .and also codified
mental retardation as two standard deviations below the mean on a measure of
intelligence. There was also a general impression that, with P. L. 94-142
(Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975), the needs of all handicapped
children would be met by the public schools. Slow learners were left on the outside
of this new force in service delivery. (p. 2)
In essence, students who were considered MMR by previous standards and could
receive special education services in the schools for the diagnosis, now receive no special
services yet continue to have the same deficits previously considered mentally
handicapped. Forness, Keogh, Macmillan, Kavale & Gresham (1998), conclude "Many
children with low IQ who were previously served in special education are now either the
unrecognized problem of general education or are misclassified in other special education
categories" (p. 2). The shift in classification guidelines for MMR has left many children
with borderline intellectual functioning (now considered children who are low achievers)
without services and support in the education system.
Alternatives To Current Special Education Assessment
It is clear from the available data that discriminating children who are low
achievers from LD and MMR using cognitive and achievement measurements is
currently not a clear process, if indeed it can be accomplished at all with any type of
consensus among educators and researchers. An alternative frequently found in literature
for how the current system could be revamped, involves measuring both strengths and
weakness on curriculum based skills, as opposed to norm referenced testing focused on
deficits (Burns, 2002; Reid, Epstein, Pastor & Rysa, 2000; Ryba, 1998; Barnett, Bell,
Gilkey, Lentz, Francis, Graden, Stone, Smith, & Mcmann, 1999). Reid, et al. (2000),
suggest that the current focus on deficits actually limits the range and type of information
collected and may unfairly emphasize a child's dysfunctional areas. The lack of a
strength balance to identified deficits can also serve to limit educators' knowledge of how
a child performs best.
Burns (2002) and Barnett et al. (1999) suggest a model referred to as intervention-
based assessment. Its focus is on assessing children in a natural setting in order to design
interventions and monitor their success. There is also a strong component of parental
input built into this model that is missing from most current eligibility determinations.
Increasing the child's input into the decision making process has also been suggested
(Howe, 2001). This would provide educators with the child's experience of his or her
academic and school related difficulties and shift focus back onto the individual who has
to live with the problems--namely the child.
Ryba (1998) reviews several strategies and components that are involved in what
he terms "dynamic assessment and program planning." The contention is that children
benefit from assessment when it is done using "meaningful and challenging tasks that are
closely related to ones that the student would be expected to perform in the real world"
(Hacker & Hatheway, 1991). Ryba (1998) lists three characteristics common to all
dynamic assessments: (1) pre-test/intervention/post-test; (2) active participant role of the
student and the assessor; and, (3) an analysis of the teaching and learning processes in
relation to educational outcomes (p. 9).
Common to all of these alternative models is the idea that assessment measures
should reflect both strengths and weaknesses and be intervention focused as opposed to
deficit focused. The alternative models above are also broader in scope than the
standardized assessments of ability and achievement currently used across the nation to
determine which children receive academic help. Another model that provides a
framework for person-centered, consistent assessment is the Classification of
Functioning, Disability and Health developed by the World Health Organization (World
Health Organization ICF Introduction, 2001). Although this model is primarily focused
on health issues, it provides a theoretical viewpoint that could potentially be adopted
within the educational system. A more comprehensive discussion of this health model
and its potential implications for use in the educational system is provided below.
The World Health Organization Model of Disability
The World Health Organization (WHO) model of disability is called the
International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF Introduction,
2001), known as the ICF. The ICF is designed to focus not on disability or outcomes of
disability, but rather on how health related issues and health interact with an individual's
total environment and functioning (ICF Introduction, 2001). This model has been
accepted by 191 countries and is considered the standard for describing health and related
issues (WHO press release, 2001).
In the ICF introduction on the WHO website, a rationale is provided as to why the
model was developed and how it is structured. The ICF is a model developed primarily
for two reasons. The first is to provide healthcare workers worldwide with a common
way to describe health related issues. This provides a means of information exchange
and sharing that is based on common foundations and descriptions. Each component and
subset is coded with a number or letter so that every health care provider is able to assess
precisely what is being described. For example, 3(d335)(3) would mean that in the area
of Communication, specifically the production of non-verbal communication, the person
has a severe level (50-90% of the time) of difficulty (ICF, 2001). If a uniform system of
terminology such as this was established within the U.S. educational system, the
difficulties currently encountered with inconsistency of terminology and disability
descriptions from state to state may well be alleviated.
The second goal of the WHO was to develop a model of health classification that
does not focus on disability, but rather on how to describe each individual's unique
experience with health related issues. A 2001 WHO press release on the model explains
that the ICF "shifts focus to 'life', i.e., how people live with their health conditions and
how these can be improved to achieve a productive, fulfilling life. It has implications for
medical practice; for law and social policy to improve access and treatment; and for the
protection of the rights of individuals and groups"(World Health Organization press
The ICF is a multi-layer model that stresses interaction between various domains as
well as how each of the domains affects the others. It is a dynamic rather than static
model of functioning in that intervention or change at any one of the levels has the ability
to change or impact other levels. It is not designed for "disabled" people, but rather is
referred to as having a "universal application" because it describes all health related
states. (BickenBach, Chatterji, Badley & Ustun, 1999).
The structure of the ICF model is best conceptualized through the chart provided by
the World Health Organization:
(disorder or disease)
Body Function & Structure -- Activity 4-,. Participation
Environmental Factors Personal Factors
Source WHO (2001) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneve:WHO
Figure 3-1. The model for International Classification of Functioning, Disability and
In this model, health conditions are viewed in their relation to three components:
Body Function and Structure, Activity and Participation, and Environment.
Body Function and Structure encompasses aspects such as physiological changes in
body functions as well as anatomical changes in body structures (ICF, 2001). For
example, this may include structural changes in the liver, spinal cord or stomach and/or
functional changes in movement and mobility such as movement patterns associated with
walking and running or functions associated with ingestion such as chewing and
swallowing (ICF, 2001). When there is significant loss in body structure or function, it is
called Impairment (ICF Introduction, 2001).
The second component, Activity & Participation, addresses the individual's
functioning from his or her own perspective as well as a societal perspective. It is what
the person actually does in his or her environment. This may include activities such as
self-care, communication or learning and applying knowledge. Difficulties in performing
these tasks are called Activity Limitations or Participation Restrictions (ICF Introduction,
2001). While separated into two distinct categories on the ICF chart, the WHO has
acknowledged that the separation of Activities and Participation is sometimes difficult to
accomplish. To simplify this, the World Health Organization has compiled the
information in these two areas into one list in the ICF (World Health Organization,
The third component of the ICF is Environment. It examines environmental aspects
involved in living such as physical, social and attitudinal issues. It addresses individual
aspects as well as services and systems in the environment. This may include attitudes of
authority figures such as teachers or employers toward the individual, support and
relationships or products and technology.
Personal Factors is a category that is not officially included in the ICF, but noted
due to its ability to impact the above three components. Types of considerations included
here could be an individual's race, ethnicity, upbringing, lifestyle, socio-economic status
Finally, the ICF model incorporates a listing of qualifiers that describe the level of
difficulty one may have in any particular area. These include levels of difficulty on a
graduated scale. These qualifiers rate the level of difficulty in comparison to an average
functioning person. The extent of the difficulty can be described as: None, Mild,
Moderate, Severe or Complete (ICF, 2001). Corresponding percentages for each level
are included for greater uniformity of description and understanding among health care
A Comparison of Two Disability Classification Systems:
United States Educational System vs. ICF
The ICF and Department of Education models of disability are similar in that they
are both developed from a health perspective. Neither is designed to address issues that
are not health related in some manner. They both also contain provisions for examining
multiple components of functioning such as physical, emotional, social and
environmental. The models diverge at this point in that using the ICF model, individuals
with a health condition are assessed in all areas of functioning, whereas the educational
system does not require children who are being considered for special education
placement to be assessed in all functional areas. At this point, it is pertinent to discuss the
differences in the models' treatment of impact levels and the terminology used to
describe abilities. For the ICF, impact levels would be the qualifiers (range of"No
difficulty" "Complete difficulty"). In the state education models there are different
measures of impact depending on the disability and the measures used for assessment.
This alone is a notable difference between the two models in that the ICF uses a
consistent continuum of qualifiers, whereas the educational system focuses on pre-set
levels of difficulty to be reached before services are provided. An example is found in
the Florida Statutes and State Board of Education Rules (2001), a published guide of
statutes pertaining to eligibility in special education programs in Florida. For the SLD
program, the statute lists among its requirements that there be "evidence of a disorder in
one or more of the basic psychological processes required for learning"(6A-
6.03018(2)(b) and "evidence of academic achievement which is significantly below the
student's level of intellectual functioning" (6A-03018(2)(c). Further age requirements
for this program stipulate that for children under age 7 a "significant discrepancy" exists
between IQ and achievement; for children age 7-10 a "discrepancy of one standard
deviation or more" between IQ and achievement is required; and for children age 11 and
up a "discrepancy of 1 12 standard deviations is required." Academically, three different
levels of impact are required depending on the age of the child being considered.
Conversely, the impact of processing deficits is very loosely defined as simply needing to
show "evidence" of a deficit. As reviewed earlier, each state is free to determine its own
definitions for statute terms such as "evidence of" and what types of assessment tools
must be used to show evidence of discrepancies. Other terms in state and federal
legislation regarding special programming for disabilities that are open to interpretation
include "sub average," "below the mean" and "significant" (Kavale & Forness, 2000).
Researchers point out that the current models of disability determination in various
school systems not only pose inconsistencies from state to state, but from county to
county within states (Gresham, Macmillan & Bocian, 1996; Epps, Ysseldyke &
Algozzine, 1985). Essentially, this uniformity problem exists on a national level
(Gresham, Macmillan & Bocian, 1996). If a model such as the ICF were to be used on a
national level in educational systems, it could provide uniform terminology and
measurements to be used by all counties and states to convey the needs and difficulties of
Another difference between the educational perspective of disability and the ICF is
the approach each takes in describing individuals. The ICF starts with the individual and
expands out to include how that individual experiences a multitude of life areas. The
purpose is to describe the many facets of life that are touched by the health condition. It
allows deficits and strengths to be documented. The state school systems focus regarding
health conditions is on whether or not the condition meets the criteria for classifying the
person in a specific, pre-determined disability group. It is placement driven with deficits
as the focus (Barnett, et al., 1999; Ryba, 1998). The state models start with the
individual, expand somewhat to investigate the educational impact of the health condition
and then constrict again to determine if the findings are sufficient to be categorized under
a specific disability. The focus is not to describe the individual experience, but rather to
ascertain whether or not the individual's performance meets specific levels of
dysfunction (Ryba, 1998). If the education system were to develop a model similar to the
ICF, it may lead to more effective interventions for academically struggling children.
This could occur in two ways. First, a greater emphasis would be placed on a child's
areas of strength, which in turn would allow educators to develop interventions for
deficits that build on the child's strengths. For example, a child who has a strength in
solving word problems, but a deficit in numerical calculation problems could learn how
to conceptualize numbers through the use of words. The second way a model similar to
the ICF could improve upon the current educational model of disability is that the focus
on having to meet pre-specified levels of dysfunction in order to get special services
would be replaced by individual assessments of any child who is having difficulty
functioning in regular classrooms and individually tailored interventions designed to
promote success. Currently, children who do not meet policy driven guidelines for
special education eligibility receive little to no help or protection in the classroom for
their deficits. A model such as the ICF would provide recognition of, and possibly
interventions for, various levels of difficulties other than just the most severe.
The scope of the models is also different. Building on the earlier example, the
State of Florida eligibility criteria have only one category, mental handicap, which
requires the schools to complete a social developmental history and adaptive behavior
instrument for eligibility. Conversely, the ICF model gathers information on social and
adaptive functioning for all individuals with health related issues. In the ICF model,
these areas of functioning are assessed under the category of Activity and Participation.
As suggested by the ICF model, there is a factor of inter-relatedness between the various
areas of an individual's functioning. This phenomenon of various life areas impacting
each other is not addressed in the current educational system model of disability. The
following example of how ignoring this phenomenon could impact a child's success in
the classroom is offered. Consider that a second grade child is receiving failing grades in
the classroom. The teacher also notes that the child seems unusually withdrawn and
inattentive. Testing by the school psychologist reveals no significant deficits in the
child's academic abilities on measures of standardized testing. Under the current model
of disability, the child would receive no special education services. Now, consider this
same child being evaluated based on a multi-dimensional model such as the ICF. In
addition to academic ability testing, an interview with the parent is conducted to gather
information on the child's social developmental history. This interview reveals that the
child has a chronic allergy problem that she takes medication for in the morning. The
parent is encouraged to seek the advice of her doctor to ascertain if the medication could
be causing tiredness and inattentiveness in the classroom. The parent follows through
with the medical consultation and discovers that the medication indeed could be causing
problems during the day. The doctor changes the medication dosage and the child's
grades subsequently improve. Had the school not sought out the child's medical history,
the medication problem may not have been discovered and the child may have continued
to struggle in the classroom. In essence, a multi-dimensional model could enhance
children's classroom success because it would recognize that deficits in one area of life
functioning could be the result of problems or circumstances in an entirely different area
Finally, the two models differ in their ability to gather and express information
about an individual in a manner that is universal to all care providers. The ICF model
offers standard language and consistent means of measurement based on how an
individual is experiencing his or her world. One of the ICF goals is to be a universal tool
for understanding and comparison of individuals (ICF Introduction, 2001). Conversely,
the educational model offers general guidelines that can be implemented using various
instruments, measurements and interpretations. As discussed earlier, the lack of
consistency and comparability between state models of special education classifications
has been a source of many debates and criticisms (Kidder et al., 2000; Hagan-Burke &
Jefferson, 2002; Epps, Ysseldyke, & Algozzine, 1985; Gresham, MacMillan & Bocian,
1996; Gresham, Macmillan & Bocian, 1998; Warner, Dede, Garvan, & Conway, 2002;
Kavale & Forness, 2000).
In summary, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the current system of
classification and remediation used to address educational difficulty is not effective on
many levels. As a result, it has been suggested that addressing the needs of children with
learning difficulties may be better accomplished by providing assistance to all children
who struggle and that taking a more preventative stance, rather than the current more
expensive remedial approach, may be the best system of delivery (Gresham, MacMillan,
Bocian, 1996; Lyon, Fletcher, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, Torgesen, Wood, Schulte and Olson
retrieved 12/20/02). Models of assessment and assistance, such as those outlined above,
are possible alternatives to the current system that is criticized for its lack of scope and
poor outcomes. For these systems to be effective, it is important to investigate more
thoroughly the experiences and needs of academically struggling children. A
multidimensional approach to how children who are low achievers experience the school
environment is a key component to understanding how effective interventions can be
implemented. Key information can be obtained from teachers who work with struggling
children every day and are charged with the task of finding ways to help these children
succeed in school.
Social Emotional Indicators in Children Who Are Low Achievers
Going a step beyond achievement and intellectual abilities, some researchers have
investigated how LD, MMR and low achievement groups compare on functional
measures of behavior. Merrell & Mertz (1992) demonstrated that it is virtually
impossible to distinguish among these three groups on measures that assess how children
get along with peers, exhibit pro-social behavior and demonstrate social conformity in the
classroom. All three groups were significantly lower in these measures than their
academically average performing peers in the classroom. Similarly, Gresham, MacMillan
& Bocian (1996) found that on measures of social skills, conduct problems, hyper-
activity and inattention, LD, MMR and SL groups were very similar when compared to
one another. These three groups were significantly lower in the skill areas of
cooperation, assertion and self-control when compared to national normative data. They
also displayed elevated scores on measures of externalizing behavior, hyperactivity and
Characteristics of Children Who Are Low Achievers
Much of the literature on children who are low achievers focuses on defining what
children who are low achievers are not. As outlined above, most reports focus on
whether or not children who are low achievers are learning disabled or educable mentally
handicapped. They infrequently look at the characteristics and needs of children who are
low achievers other than the fact that they are kids who do not learn well. It appears that
the only consensus among most researchers is that children who are low achievers do not
perform adequately on achievement measures. This is exemplified in the subject selection
of many research projects that rely on teacher referral for poor academics or low
standardized achievement test performance as criteria for their subject pool (Gresham,
MacMillan & Bocian, 1996; Gresham, MacMillan & Bocian, 1998; Ysseldyke et at.,
1982; MacMillan, Gresham, Siperstein & Bocian, 1996, Epps, Ysseldyke & McGue,
1984). Despite research efforts that either support or dispel notions of children who are
low achievers being differentiated from other disability groups, the fundamental problem
that these children continue to fail if not labeled is usually ignored (Shaw, 2/22/02). It
would perhaps be helpful to determine if these children possess their own unique
characteristics and needs rather than attempting to make them conform to the criteria of
some other disability group. Supporters of inclusion, who tend to downplay group
expectations and lean more toward individual student needs, assert that labeling does not
solve the problem of academic failure and that all people are learning disabled in some
way (Spilerman, 1971; Murphy 1986; Murguia & Telles, 1996). They support the notion
that most children can be educated in the mainstream classroom by teachers trained in the
nuances of different learning styles and abilities. Unfortunately, there is little empirically
based data to help guide teachers regarding how to address individual needs of children
who are low achievers. Most information that is available on how to teach children who
are low achievers is in the form of secondary research sources such as teachers' guides or
books (Haigh, 1977; Raymond, 2000; Lehr, 1988;Griffen, 1978; Hargis, 1997). Actual
research that focuses on children who are low achievers has traditionally been embedded
in reports regarding disadvantaged children or minority children (Schroth, 1976;
Mickelson, 1990; Murphy, 1986; Daniel, 1964; Spilerman, 1971). Usually these studies
focus on children who are low achievers within a particular social or cultural sub-context.
In contrast, one is hard pressed to find articles entitled "What is a low achiever?" or
"Low achievers as differentiated from other disabilities." What the sources that are
available tend to agree on about children who are low achievers is that a) they do not fit
into the curriculum pace that the majority of learners do, b) the repeated failure they face
can be damaging to their self esteem, c) they may be less motivated to learn due to
chronic failing experiences, d) they need more drill and repetition, and, e) they may have
little or negative social interactions with peers due to being viewed as failures (Griffen,
1978; Hargis, 1997; Lehr, 1988). In her book, At Risk: Low Achieving Students in the
Classroom, Lehr (1988), compiles the following list of possible common characteristics
of children who are low achievers (however, no empirical data sources are noted):
* Academic difficulties
* Lack of structure
* Short attention span
* Low self esteem
* Health problems
* Excessive absenteeism
* Discipline problem
* Narrow range of interest
* Lack of social skills
* Inability to face pressure
* Fear of failure
* Lack of motivation
The literature is clear in describing how children who are low achievers are
addressed in the classroom as opposed to their higher achieving peers. Low achieving
children are called on less frequently, seated further from the teacher, given less
feedback, given fewer work standards, praised less frequently and have less academic
learning time (Kerman, 1979; Wehlage, Rutter & Turnbaugh, 1987; Evertson, 1982;
Good, 1981; Murphy, Hallinger & Lotto, 1986).
The lack of published research on sets of characteristics common to children who
are low achievers leaves one to wonder why these children's needs are largely ignored. It
also lends to the question of why there is little interest in defining the group, as a whole,
as an academic subset rather than in addressing them solely within the context of
environmental or racial factors.
Short and Long-term Outcomes for Students At Risk
One could not engage in a dialogue about the consequences of being a student with
low achievement without mentioning grade retention. If retention is a looming
inevitability for children who cannot keep up and fail in the general curriculum, then the
next question to investigate is whether or not retention is a beneficial solution. Many
years of research have found that the resounding answer to this question is "No" (Owings
& Magliaro, 1998; Jimmerson, 2002; Potter, 1996; Smink, nd).
Academically, retained children may show improvement in the initial stages of the
retained year, but those gains decline within 2-3 years of retention when retained children
fall back to achieving less than or equal to similar children not retained (Dawson, 1998;
Otto, 1951; Butler, 1990; Snyder, 1992). Retained students also score significantly lower
on assessments of academic achievement, language arts, reading, math, and social studies
when compared to similar students who were promoted (Holmes & Matthew's as cited in
Emotionally, retention is shown to be associated with increased behavioral
problems, poor attitude towards school, attendance problems, low self esteem, low social
skills and poor social adjustment (Owings, 1998; Jimmerson, 2001; Karweit & Wasik,
1992; Snyder, 1992; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Potter, 1996). An
interesting study by Byrnes & Yamamoto (2001) looked specifically at children's views
of retention. When interviewing 71 retained elementary students the following responses
were reported. When asked how they felt or would feel about being retained, 84% shared
feelings such as "sad, "bad" or "upset" and 3% used the word "embarrassed." When
asked how their parents felt about the retention, 46% said mad, 28% said sad and 8%
indicated their parents would not care or react at all. When asked why they thought they
had been retained, 25% said not getting good grades and 14% indicated behavior
problems (i.e., talk too much, got into fights or played too much)
In response to asking the children if their teachers ever talk about keeping children
in the same grade, 70% of the children responded "yes." Examples of what teachers
would say included: "If you don't want to do it, we won't force you. You will be here
next year too," "All of you kids who didn't hand in your papers stand up. These will be
the ones that are here next year," and "If you don't follow directions, you are going to
flunk." In this research, it appears that retained children not only harbor negative
attitudes towards themselves about being retained, but that their perception of parents and
teacher response is also negatively focused on them.
Additional research on the effects of retention by Bossing and Brien (1979) found
that the threat of non-promotion is not a motivating force for students, retention does not
promote more homogeneous classrooms and that conduct and socioeconomic status
affected school based decisions for retention for many students. Jimmerson (2001)
conducted a meta-analysis of grade retention research and found that 80% of the studies
comparing retained students with matched promoted groups concluded that grade
retention was not an effective intervention for academic achievement and socio-
Legislation and Education
An important issue impacting students and teachers is the recent political focus on
changing how the U.S. educational system accounts for its productivity. The No Child
Left Behind Act (2001) passed by the U.S. federal government has mandated sweeping
educational reform. As part of this reform, school accountability for student achievement
is now expected to be measured on a yearly basis, through the use of standardized testing;
states will be expected to establish measurable educational goals for students; and schools
will be expected to publicly disclose the progress and achievement levels of their students
(National Education Association [NEA], 2003.
A recent analysis of high stakes standardized testing throughout the nation found
Florida's system to be both the most aggressive and most academically generalized for
students (Green, 2003). This report investigated the question of whether or not the results
of high stakes testing really indicated student gains in general learning, or whether
students were simply learning skills pertinent to the one high stakes test their state chose
to implement for accountability (i.e., "teaching to the test"). Results showed that, in
general, the skill mastery measured on high stakes tests correlated with skills measured
on other standardized tests of student achievement. However, measuring student gains
across time had a much weaker correlation. Of particular interest in this report is the
researchers' finding that Florida had the highest correlation (.96) between students'
scores on the state's high stakes test (the FCAT) and the states low stakes test (Stanford-
9). Florida also had the highest correlation (.71) between these two tests when student's
learning gains across time were measured. The authors conclude that, in Florida, the
concern that teachers may be, "teaching to the test," rather than teaching generally
applicable academic skills does not appear to be founded. They also point out that
Florida's unique incorporation of value added measurements (individual student gains
from year to year), gives important information about student learning that removes the
influences of factors outside the school system such as family income and community
factors. They suggest that, "future research is needed to identify ways in which other
school systems might modify their practices to produce results more like those in
Florida." (p. 17)
The above findings of the Manhattan Institute study clearly suggest that Florida is
not only achieving success with its implementation of high stakes testing, but that Florida
should be a model for other states to emulate when developing accountability practices. It
is therefore pertinent to investigate the policies and practices implemented in the state of
Florida. In Florida, federal legislation such as P.L. 107-110, called No Child Left Behind
Act of 2001 and the Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for Education have had a huge impact on
policy and procedure in education. The two guiding principles in these legislative
1. Each student should gain a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time in a Florida
2. No student will be left behind.
These federal and state acts take away much of the schools' autonomy in decisions
of achievement standards and retention (Seligman, 2000). In Florida, the practice of
social promotion [promoting a child to the next grade based on factors other than grades,
i.e., due to previous retentions a child is much older than his same grade peers] has been
an option to retention for students who are not performing at grade level. This practice
reduced the numbers of retained students by promoting based on a perceived social
benefit that outweighs the academic failure. The state's new A+ Plan "ends the practice
of social promotion" (Bush Brogan A+ Plan for Education, 2002).
The governor of Florida issued the following statement on his A+ Plan and how it
relates to the practice of social promotion
The core belief behind our A+ Plan is that no child will be left behind. The policy
of social promotion (being promoted without demonstration of grade level
academic achievement) be eliminated in Florida's public schools. Students will be
required to meet standards in order to be promoted to the next grade...With this
combination of increased funding and powerful accountability reforms, we can give
every Florida child the life-long benefits of a world-class education (Bush Brogan
A+ Plan for Education,).
Under this plan the state relies on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test
(FCAT) to determine levels of achievement. This is a criterion-referenced test "developed
by Florida educators specifically to measure student growth against the Sunshine State
Standards." (Bush/Brogan, 2002) (The Sunshine State Standards is the curriculum guide
used by teachers in the state of Florida.) Children who do not meet specific levels of
performance "must receive remediation or be retained within an intensive program that is
different from the previous year's program (Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for Education, 2002).
Also included in the states reform policies are measures that "grade" schools based on the
results of the FCAT. Students at schools that repeatedly receive failing grades can obtain
state funded vouchers to attend other private or public schools. Teacher performance
assessments are also partly based on their students' scores on the FCAT.
In response to the new emphasis on accountability in education, reflected in federal
and state government legislation, Seligman (2000) clearly articulates at least one
opposing viewpoint in the following statement
The argument behind the accountability mantra marches forward more or less as
follows: (a) Every child is capable of learning a lot (b) Low achievement must
therefore be the fault of the schools. (c) Teachers and principals must therefore be
held accountable, losing out on pay raises when their students fail the tests
certifying academic achievement. (d) We should not allow the promotion of kids
who haven't yet learned what they're supposed to. (e) And, finally, if we take this
high academic road, we shall be rewarded in the end by huge gains in academic
Seligman (2000) responds to the accountability expectations with the statement
Statement (a) is a great applause line but regrettably not true: Students differ
enormously in learning ability, and a significant minority of them never learn to
read well or to handle long division, and are totally defeated by algebra, physics
and high school generally. (p. 238)
In summary, there appear to be very differing opinions on the effectiveness of
education legislation regarding the issue of accountability. Educational legislation
focuses on factors external to the child such as providing educational support programs
for children, mandating specific goals that children must attain before moving on to the
next grade and holding schools and teachers responsible for students who do not attain
specified goals. Highly critical viewpoints of accountability legislation, such as
Seligman's, are centered on the premise that some children lack the internal capabilities
to meet accountability standards regardless of the supports they are provided in the
classroom. An interesting observation regarding these two points of view is that neither
appears to disagree with the premise of having student goals in the education system.
Where they differ is on how failure to meet achievement goals is addressed
(consequences) and on how much student achievement depends on the educational
system versus the individual student's innate abilities. Legislative initiatives are
seemingly focused on the best interests of the majority of children, whereas viewpoints
such as Seligman's are more concerned with the impact legislative policies will have on a
relative minority of children.
The impact that accountability policies may have on teachers, and subsequently
their students, is another issue to consider. In light of the teacher self-efficacy research
outlined previously, it is appears important to investigate how teachers feelings of self-
efficacy are impacted by legislative pressures to bring low achieving children up to
expected academic standards. Since self-efficacy and student achievement has been
shown to be positively correlated, a decline in teacher self-efficacy could potentially have
a negative impact on children who are low achievers. Because these higher
accountability policies are relatively new, their impact on teachers' sense of self-efficacy
has not been investigated. Teachers' beliefs as to whether or not they are able to meet
new accountability requirements with their most challenging students could be an
important component of those students' academic success.
Low Achievement, Retention, and Dropping Out of School
As previously discussed, children who are low achievers are at risk for retention.
Retention is the number one predictor of school dropout (Rumberger, 1995). The most
common characteristic of children who drop out of school is poor academic
success/achievement (Eckstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986; McDill, Natriello &
Pallas, 1986; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002). Because the risk of drop out is high for
children who are low achievers, it is important to investigate the possible outcomes faced
by students who choose to drop out.
According to the Bureau of Census, in 2000 10.9% of high school students dropped
out of school. This number represents the children who actually formally dropped out.
The children who simply stopped attending school are not included in the statistical data
and therefore the number of dropouts could be higher.
The 2001 Condition of Education compiled by the U.S. Department of Education
indicates that 44% of high school students who dropped out in 2000 were not
competitively employed. LD students had a 33% graduation rate in 1999 and a three-year
follow up of LD students in 1990 showed that 63% were competitively employed with an
average annual salary of $6,932. Only 34% of LD students lived independently. MR
students had a 26% graduation rate, and a 1990 three-year follow up indicated that 40%
were competitively employed with an average annual salary of $3,078. Fifteen percent of
MR students were living independently (NCES, 2000).
The Condition of Education 2002 indicates that children who dropped out of high
school earned 27-30% less than peers who obtained a diploma or GED (Indicator 16).
This report goes on to state that high school dropouts are more likely to receive public
assistance than high school graduates who did not go to college (Indicator 19). When
employed, female dropouts are less likely to experience job satisfaction (Kaplan &
Damphousse, 1994). Kaplan and Damphousse (1994) also investigated mental health
consequences of not graduating high school and found that it increases the risk of
psychological dysfunction such as self-esteem.
A number of health related characteristics are also associated with high school
dropouts. There is a high incidence of substance abuse among dropouts as well as an
increased incidence of smoking and unprotected sex ("Health Risk," 1994). Women who
drop out have a lower likelihood of getting mammograms, are more likely to smoke
during pregnancy and have a higher infant mortality rate (Kimsey, 1995). Dropouts are
also less likely to have health insurance (McManus, 1989). Kimsey (1995), in a letter
presenting excerpts from a report from the National Center for Disease Control, reports a
high death rate for high school dropouts.
Stephens and Repa (1992) found that a large number of prison inmates are also
high school dropouts. They postulate that the idle time and unemployment after drop out
may play a "crucial role" (p 5) in distinguishing between dropouts who commit crimes
and those who do not.
As outlined above, dropping out of school is associated with a multitude of
personal and societal problems. Because low achievement is the most common
characteristic among dropouts, it may be that children who are low achievers are at
increased risk for these problems.
Characteristics of Children Who Drop Out
Dropouts are disproportionately from a low SES (Eckstrom et al., 1986;
MacMillan, 1991; National Center for Educational Statistics, table 310, 2002). Dropouts
have a higher incidence of behavioral problems such as cutting class, being suspended, or
having a behavioral disability (Eckstrom, 1986, Scanlon & Mellard, 2002). They also are
more likely to come from a home environment that has little educational support (Okey,
1995, Eckstrom, 1986). Research by Eckstrom inl986 concluded that, "Problem behavior
and grades appear to be determined in part by home educational support system.
Mothers' educational aspiration for student, number of study aids in home, parental
involvement in extracurricular choice and provision of opportunities for non-school
learning all affect school academic performance" (p. 371). Another characteristic
strongly associated with dropping out is being a member of a racial or ethnic minority
(Eckstrom, 1986; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002; Jeffries, 2002; Tan, 2001; Wayman, 2002).
Hispanic children who are born outside of the United States have the highest dropout rate
at 44% (Condition of Education 2002, Indicator 23)
Children who drop out have common emotional indicators. Studies show that these
children tend to have less interest in school, do not view themselves as important or
popular in the school setting, and have a more externalized locus of control in
comparison to children who choose to stay in school (Eckstrom, 1986; Scanlon &
Research findings regarding other factors that are catalysts for drop out include
behavioral difficulties and student perceptions that school personnel do not care (Scanlon
& Mellard, 2002; Eckstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986; Fine, 1986; MacMillan,
1991; Tan, 2001; Chinien & France, 2001; Wayman, 2002).
Approaches to Educating Children With Low Achievement
As cited in Jimmerson's meta-analysis (2001), techniques that appear to be the
most effective intervention strategies when educating students with learning difficulties
* Mnemonic strategies (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1989)
* Enhancing reading comprehension (Talbott, Lloyd &Tankersley, 1994)
* Behavior modification (Skiba & Casey, 1985)
* Direct instruction (White, 1988)
* Cognitive behavior modification (Robinson, Smith, Miller & Brownell, 1999)
* Formative evaluation (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986)
* Early intervention (Castro & Mastropieri, 1986)
Techniques that may help prevent retention have been suggested by Glaser (1990)
and include modeling or relating school work directly to student interests or needs,
obtaining superior work quality from students by postponing grading until students revise
and correct inadequate work, allowing group work on assignments and tests, allowing
time frames that match the student's ability rather than strict time frames in which all
students should master a topic and focusing on quality rather than quantity of work
samples. Weber and Sechler (1987) assert that the following characteristics are found in
successful drop out prevention programs: classrooms with low student to teacher ratio,
holistic and multifaceted approaches to education, teacher willingness to establish
relationships with students that are more demanding than average, motivational strategies
related to the real world and instruction with some degree of individualized teaching and
Self-Efficacy and Academic Success
Self-efficacy is a concept that some researchers believe will affect both teacher
success in implementing strategies as well as student success in mastering learning
(Schunk, 1985, Cams & Cams, 1991; Bandura, 2001). Self-efficacy is an individual's
own belief that he or she is able to successfully carry out certain behaviors that will result
in a desired outcome (Bandura, 1977a, 1977b). Frequently cited in this area of study, is
social learning theorist Albert Bandura's theory of perceived self-efficacy (Bandura,
1977a). Not only does Bandura assert that self-efficacy affects the final outcome of
behaviors, but also that self-efficacy determines the amount of time and energy that is
exerted on a task once it is undertaken. In a research study on student perceptions of self-
efficacy and how they affect achievement performance, Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara
& Pastorelli (1996) found that:
* Parent's sense of academic efficacy and aspirations for their children were linked to
their children's scholastic achievement
* Children's beliefs in their efficacy to regulate their own learning and academic
attainment in turn, contributed to scholastic achievement
* Familial socioeconomic status was linked to children's academic achievement
indirectly through its effects on parental aspirations and children's pro-socialness
* Children's feelings of self-efficacy promoted pro-social behavior and reduced
vulnerability to feelings of futility and depression. (p. 1206)
Schunk (1985) also found that raising self-efficacy in itself is an effective goal for
teachers when trying to improve student's academic performance.
Self-efficacy can also impact teacher success in implementing classroom strategies
and working with particular groups of students (Schunk, 1985). Teacher efficacy can
explain differences in teaching effectiveness (Berman & McLaughlin, 1977) and predict
teaching behavior in the classroom (Hastings & Brown, 2002). A teacher's sense of self-
efficacy has also been shown to positively correlate with student success (Allinder, 1995;
Ashton & Webb, 1986).
Educators with high teaching self-efficacy are more likely to try out new, more
difficult techniques and share more control with their students (Czemiak & Schriver-
Waldon, 1991; Dutton, 1990; Hani, Czerniek & Lumpe, 1996; Riggs & Enochs, 1990,
Ross, 1992). Ross (1998) also contends that teachers with high teaching self-efficacy try
harder with students, use techniques that increase student autonomy and attend more to
low achieving students needs. Teachers with low teaching self-efficacy have been found
to be less persistent in teaching children who are low achievers because they feel that no
amount of schooling or teacher skills will affect achievement in low achieving students
(Ashton & Webb, 1986; Gibson & Dembo, 1984)
Because teachers' perceptions of their efficacy has been shown to affect student
achievement outcomes, a vital component in examining the needs of children who are
low achievers is to assess how teachers feel about their abilities to teach children who
The need for further study of children who are low achievers is reflected in
literature findings that highlight the following pertinent issues:
* Questionable practices concerning the current methods of determining special
educational placement for struggling school children
* The lack of educational support for low achieving children despite their academic
and socio-emotional similarity to children placed in special education programs.
* The possible negative impacts low achievement has on children while in school and
throughout adult life.
* The resulting negative impact on society when low achieving children receive poor
educational experiences or drop out of school.
* The overall lack of research on this very large (and largely overlooked) group of
children in our public education system.
* The current political trend to improve the educational experiences of all children
that focuses on meeting educational standards that children who are low achievers,
by definition, have particular difficulty achieving.
Based on the theory that teacher self-efficacy beliefs are an important factor in the
academic achievement of children who are low achievers, it is vital to ascertain what
teachers perceive to be the barriers that prevent children who are low achievers from
succeeding. Teachers not only are directly charged with educating all children, but they
are the mediators by which legislative mandates, intervention techniques and educational
curriculums will be implemented. Teacher perceptions and beliefs regarding how
children who are low achievers experience the classroom and the ability of these children
to learn affect the daily educational experiences of this group of students. The barriers
that teachers perceive to be hindering the academic success of children who are low
achievers need to be investigated in order to develop interventions and programs that
teachers believe will assist them in addressing these children's needs.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Ten public elementary school teachers and three students who were low achievers
from a rural Central Florida county participated in the study. The ten teachers were
interviewed and the three students who were low achievers were observed in the
classroom setting. Participants were chosen using a purposeful sampling strategy
(Patton, 1990). As described by Patton (1990), purposeful sampling is a concept that
involves the selection of, "information-rich cases whose study will illuminate the
questions under study." (p. 169). Ten participants were chosen in order to gain
perspective from two teachers at each grade level 1st through 5th
The strategy of intensity sampling was implemented when choosing participants.
This entailed choosing cases to study that exemplified the phenomenon under study to a
high degree, but not the most extreme (Patton 1990). School sites used as participant
pools were chosen based on several factors that suggested that these sites might be
information rich sources. The three elementary schools selected had large numbers of
minority and low socio-economic status students. Minority status and low SES have
been shown to be strongly associated with low achievement (Mickelson, 1990; Murphy,
1986; Daniel, 1964; Biddle, 1997; Crooks, 1995). It was felt that teachers at these
schools may have had experiences teaching a substantial number of students who belong
to at least one of these groups and consequently would have had experience teaching
many students who were low achievers.
Interview participant selection was initiated by asking school administrators and
guidance counselors at the three elementary schools to recommend teachers they felt
would be rich sources of information on the topic of teaching children who are low
achievers. They were asked to recommend individuals they considered to be excellent
teachers as well as good communicators. The recommended teachers were then
approached to determine if they were willing to participate in this study. It was explained
to potential participants that approximately one hour of interview time would be
involved. Pseudonyms were given to each participant to protect their identity. Interview
participants also consented to reading their transcribed interviews for accuracy. Though
not required for participation, teachers were asked if they would participate in the review
of data analysis drafts to strengthen the credibility of the research findings.
In addition to teacher participants, three students who were low achievers were
selected for observation. These observations served as a means to triangulate data and
increase the credibility of the research findings. Three teacher participants were asked to
select one child from their classroom who they viewed as being a "typical" student who
is a low achiever and whose parent they knew and believed would be willing to allow
their child to be observed.
An IRB approved permission form was signed by all teachers and also sent home to
each child's parent to obtain permission for observation. An overview of the teacher
interview participants is provided below.
Name Grade Taught At Degree/State Total
Time of Interview Obtained Number of
Elizabeth 1st Bachelors/Florida 21
Marion 1st Bachelors/Florida 27
Lindy 2nd Bachelors/Florida 20
Maryellen Resource: K-5 Bachelors/Illinois 12
(previous teaching Masters/Florida
at 2nd grade level)
Susan 3rd Bachelors/Florida 2
Kaye 3rd Bachelors/Florida 23
K.C. 4th Bachelors/Florida 26
Fay 4th Masters/Florida 10
Maggie 5th Bachelors/West Va. 20
/In ctprc / V/prmrcnt
Figure 4-1 Overview of teacher interview participants
An interview guide of questions was used by the researcher (see Appendix A).
Because a semi-structured interview format was used, this guide served as an outline to
assure consistent topic inquiry from participant to participant. By nature of the
qualitative interview process, participant responses lead to further, spontaneous questions
of inquiry or clarification that were not specified on the guide. A tape recorder was used
to record the entire interview process.
Design and Procedure
A grounded research approach to qualitative analysis was utilized in this study
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Qualitative research methodologies are recognized in the field
of disability research as being an important tool in understanding the complexities of
human experiences from the perspectives of those who are living them (O'Day & Kileen,
2002). Due to the lack of information found in current literature on the general subject
of children who are low achievers as well as the absence of any literature regarding
teacher perspectives of these students, a qualitative research design was utilized in this
study to bring to light issues teachers view as pertinent to the success of children who are
low achievers in the classroom and present them for future inquiries.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant in a private
setting. Interviews took place on the school campus at the interviewee's time and place
of convenience. Length of the interview varied from teacher to teacher, but on average
lasted one to two hours. Prior to the interview, teachers were told that the purpose of the
project was to obtain their views and thoughts on working with children who have
academic difficulties but do not qualify for specialized educational programming.
Qualitative interviews are a means of accessing what the perspectives are of those
being interviewed. Those spoken perspectives become the living data that the researcher
analyzes (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The quality of the data is rooted in the interviewer's
accurate interpretation and understanding of the interviewee's words. It was necessary
for the interviewer to frequently ask for clarification or expansion of the interviewee's
responses in order to gain an accurate understanding. As a result, every interview
followed its own unique path to understanding. These ongoing response inquiries were
made to reduce the confounding effects that personal biases and perspectives held by the
interviewer could have on data collection (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
Low achieving student observations were conducted in the classroom setting for
approximately one hour. Teachers were asked to suggest a time for observation that was
convenient to them and the least disruptive to their classroom atmosphere. Teachers were
also asked to choose a time or activity they felt would best represent the observed child's
typical functioning in the classroom. This researcher spent approximately 15 to 20
minutes in the classroom prior to the formal observation time in order for the children to
become familiar with my presence. This was done due to this researcher's prior
experience observing in the elementary classroom when children have been noted to
initially be very curious about a new person in their environment. If children became
curious and asked "why" I was there, they were told that I was there to observe the
teacher. On previous occasions, this researcher has found that this reasoning generally
serves to assuage children's curiosity and/or suspicions. During the one-hour formal
evaluation, every attempt was made to observe the participant student without letting him
or her know that they were specifically being targeted for observation. Brief notations
regarding observer thoughts or observations were taken during the observation when
needed. Full-length observational data was written immediately upon conclusion of each
Tape-recorded interviews were transcribed by the investigator. Following
transcription, participants were given a copy of their interview to review for accuracy.
Hand written observational notes were typed into the NVivo software program for
qualitative data analysis. The NVivo software program, developed for qualitative data
analysis, was used to compile and code the data. This program allows for large amounts
of data contained in transcribed documents to be reduced to smaller subsets of themes,
categories, and codes. It allows for flexibility in re-coding and re-conceptualization of
constructs as they arise in the analysis of data. It also allows for easy comparison
between data sets within and between transcribed documents.
Data analysis entailed microanalysis of the interview transcripts and observation
notes. As described by Strauss and Corbin (1998), microanalysis involves
The detailed line-by-line analysis necessary at the beginning of a study to generate
initial categories (with their properties and dimensions) and to suggest relationships
among categories; a combination of open and axial coding. (p. 57)
Interview data was analyzed using the constant comparative method of qualitative
analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This method is concerned with "generating and
plausibly suggesting (but not provisionally testing) many categories, properties, and
hypotheses about general problems" (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 104).
Using this constant comparative method, data was continually analyzed and
reanalyzed for emerging conceptual categories, sub-components of categories, and
interrelationships of categories and concepts. A brief outline is provided below, but a
description of this method is more fully detailed in Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Strauss
and Corbin (1998).
The first step of the constant comparative method is the breakdown of text into
discrete areas of similar data concepts. These similar content areas are then grouped into
categories. With each interview analysis, data is analyzed as to its fit into existing
categories and also for the existence of new categories. If new categories are formed,
previous interviews are reanalyzed for data fitting the new conceptual category. Second,
categories are analyzed for various properties that are comprised within them. Data is
reanalyzed for comparison of the incident to the properties within the category. This
allows for the deeper inspection of motives or perspectives that give rise to the general
In the analysis of data for this study, each interview was read line-by-line and
tentative nodes (discrete categories) of data content were developed. Field notes were
also reviewed and nodes for information the researcher noted as being possibly recurrent
were developed. Observational data transcripts were analyzed in the same manner as
interview transcripts. As each interview was read, data was assessed and placed into
existing categories, if appropriate, or new nodes were developed for data that did not fit
existing nodes. For example, in the initial data analysis of the first interview, the
participant described characteristics she felt were descriptive of many children who are
low achievers. To categorize this data, the nodes "Poor Families," "Feeling 'Dumb"' and
"Giving Up" were established. Statements that reflected these concepts were coded
under their respective nodes. In the second interview analyzed there were data that "fit"
and were coded under the above nodes, but there were also additional conceptual
categories of characteristics of children who are low achievers noted such as "preference
for hands on learning" and "limited vocabulary." These new nodes were established and
the first interview was once again re-read to determine if there were data that fit these
new conceptual categories. The process of establishing data under existing nodes,
establishing new nodes and reviewing previously coded interviews for newly developed
nodes continued until all interviews had been coded. Once this phase had been
completed, the nodes were analyzed and grouped together for similar content. Using the
Characteristics of Children Who Are Low Achievers example, nodes such as "preference
for hands on learning," "need for 'real life' examples" and "auditory preferred to written
instruction" were grouped under the more general node of "Learning Styles of Children
Who Are Low Achievers." Nodes such as "Giving Up" and "Feeling 'Dumb'" were
grouped under "Emotional Responses to Failure of Children Who Are Low Achievers."
The data within each conceptual category were reviewed for appropriateness of fit within
the new content grouping. Any data that was contrary to the information in nodes were
placed in a separate node and reexamined to determine if there were discernable reasons
as to why the information may be different from that found in other interviews. Some of
the similar content groups were "Stressful Homes," "Low Self Esteem," "Life
Experiences of Children Who Are Low Achievers" and "Teacher Educational Preparation
for Children Who Are Low Achievers."
Once information was grouped under similar content categories, it was re-examined
for broader thematic content. As data emerged from the content categories, it was
determined that two themes, home-based barriers and educational system barriers,
encompassed all of the data collected from participants. The similar content groups were
then re-grouped together under the appropriate thematic area. The data within each
similar content area was then reanalyzed for fit within the theme. There were some
instances, such as with the similar content node of "Feelings of Children Who Are Low
Achievers," when data within the node covered both home and school related feelings. In
this instance, all of the data related to the feelings of children who are low achievers
about their home was moved to a separate node titled "Feelings-Home" and moved under
the theme of "Home Based Barriers."
Throughout the analysis process, each piece of supporting data within the nodes is
constantly reexamined for fit and appropriateness within the node and similar content
area where it is placed. Even in the last thematic stages of analysis, new concepts
emerged from the data, requiring the researcher to start back at the beginning process of a
line-by-line inspection of each interview and working through the entire analysis process
As prescribed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) for this method of analysis, data was
analyzed until saturation was reached. Saturation is the point at which data properties and
categories have become rich with description and depth, and the addition of further data
only serves to further illustrate what is already well established.
Final results of the research are presented within the framework of the two themes
that emerged, with support for each theme represented by conceptual and discrete
Two constructs of great importance in qualitative study are trustworthiness and
credibility. The first construct, trustworthiness, is the extent to which the researcher's
interpretations correctly reflect the phenomenon being studied. Glesne and Peshkin
(1992) point out that time is an essential factor in developing trustworthy research results.
The more time a researcher spends in the environment being studied, the more
opportunities there are to observe a wide range of interactions and events. It gives a
broader view of the participant's world and the events that shape his or her perceptions
and feelings. Time spent with interview participants building relationships lends to more
honest and comprehensive dialogue once the interview process has begun. Creating an
interview atmosphere that is unrushed and relaxed allows participants to feel comfortable
expanding on thoughts or ideas and fosters confidence that the interviewer is interested in
what they have to share. Likewise, investment of time in the interview process helps to
ensure that the interviewer is not ignoring possible topics for exploration or clarification
for the sake of time constraints. In this study, participants were given copies of the
interview format at least one week prior to their scheduled interview. This allowed them
to think about the topics and formulate some of their thoughts prior to the interview. As
one participant expressed, "teachers don't like to take pop quizzes!" Many of the
teachers thanked the researcher for the topics ahead of time and shared that it helped
them feel better prepared and therefore more comfortable about being recorded. Some
teachers also expressed that having the questions ahead of time gave them the
opportunity to, "think about things they have never really had to put into words before."
The fact that I had spoken with all of the participants previously in my role as a school
psychologist, seemed to me to make the interview process more informal and
comfortable. I was someone with whom they were familiar who had some idea of the
day-to-day experiences they go through. To ensure enough time was spent with each
participant, each one was asked to set the time and place of the interview themselves.
There were a few occasions when the interview was rescheduled at the participant's
request due to unforeseen events occurring or, in one case, the participant just being too
tired at the end of a difficult day. Several interviews took place in two sessions because
of time pressures. If a participant had a great deal of insight to share or if the interview
took a new path or direction, a second session was scheduled so that participants would
not feel rushed to share their thoughts or reluctant to expound on topics that could
provide valuable data.
The use of multiple data sources is another method of increasing the
trustworthiness of research results. The utilization of more that one type of data
collection is called "triangulation" (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992, p. 24). Triangulation
methods were implemented in this research project by the collection of data through
teacher interviews as well as observations of children who are low achievers in the
classroom setting. As explained by Glesne and Peshkin (1992), the use of multiple data
sources, "is not to negate the utility of, say, a study based solely on interviews, but rather
to indicate that the more sources tapped for understanding, the more believable the
findings" (p. 24).
The second construct of importance, credibility, is essentially the degree to which
your research findings can be verified by some other means (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992).
Steps to enhance credibility allow the researcher to avoid misconstrued research findings
due to personal bias, assumptions, or simply misinterpreting data. To ensure credibility
of this research project, the researcher employed the following methods suggested by
Lincoln and Guba (1985):
* Enlistment of an outside "auditor" to review field notes and subsequent analysis
* Sharing the interpretive process with interview participants
The outside auditors enlisted for this study were two of this researcher's committee
members, a graduate student peer and a teacher not involved in the study. Working
drafts of the analysis were provided to these outside auditors to review and provide input
regarding the development of codes, application of codes and interpretation of field notes.
Interview participants shared in the interpretive process on two levels. First, they
reviewed their own interview transcripts for accuracy of content. Second, they were
asked to review a final working draft of the research. As outlined by Glesne and Peshkin
(1992), this review of the drafts provides an opportunity for participants to "(1) verify
that you have reflected the insider's perspectives; (2) inform you of sections that, if
published, could be problematic for either personal or political reasons; and (3) help you
to develop new ideas and interpretations." (p. 147)
A statement of researcher bias is also included (Appendix B) so that readers are
aware of the experiences and beliefs held by this researcher that have the potential to
affect how data is collected and interpreted. As outlined above, steps have been taken to
eliminate as much researcher bias as possible in the collection and interpretation of data.
The following themes, categories and relationships which resulted from this
research effort are presented as an emerging model for understanding the phenomenon of
children who are low achievers in the elementary classroom from a teacher perspective.
The difficulties faced by children who are low achievers in the classroom seem to
be the result of several factors interacting, rather than clearly defined "barriers" that can
be easily isolated and addressed. Factors contributing to poor student performance
appeared to develop out of primarily two realms: the home and the educational system.
These two realms appear to negatively impact the educational needs of children who are
low achievers for increased self-esteem, more time in learning and special learning
techniques. It is important to note that none of the factors impacting children who are
low achievers in the home and educational system in and of themselves seemed to be the
"cause" of student difficulties. Rather, it appears that a culmination of circumstances
result in the classroom difficulties experienced by children who are low achievers.
Among study participants, there was a general consensus that children who are low
achievers would be able to perform better academically if environmental factors in their
lives were more responsive to their needs. Having a low IQ was never identified as the
single "reason" that children who are low achievers had difficulty, but rather as an
individual factor that when acted upon by forces outside a child's control resulted in poor
Teachers believed that given the appropriate learning environment and family
support, children who are low achievers could become higher academic achievers and in
turn more productive adults. Unfortunately, the current outlook for their academic
success appears less than optimistic. The two primary areas of difficulty, home support
and school climate, will be discussed to gain a better understanding of the factors these
study participants felt must be addressed in order for children who are low achievers to
experience success in the educational system.
Figure 5-1. Negative influences on the success of children who are low achievers in the
"I am born" From Charles Dickens David Copperfield, 1850
There appear to be factors working against children who are low achievers from the
moment they come into the world. The home-life of children who are low achievers was
a persistent concern with all teachers. Surprisingly, teachers expressed that the
intellectual level of children who are low achievers was second to their home-life
situation in relationship to its impact on academic functioning. In interview after
interview, teachers described the home environments of many low achieving children as
being generally stressful, having few financial resources and poorly educated parents. As
will be explained, where these children come from plays an important part in how they
ultimately perform in the classroom. First, let us set the stage for how these children
experience their worlds prior to attending school.
It seems that children who are low achievers are often not the first generation in
their families to struggle academically. Many of the parents of children who are low
achievers appear to have struggled in school when they were young, just as their children
Maggie: Usually, just from my own personal experience, the families don't have
the educational background either. Sometimes the parents are low achievers just
like the students are low achievers.
Fay: Every year, because I teach GED on Thursdays, I have two or three parents
per class, "I need to join your class because I never got my diploma."
The lack of a good parental educational background more often than not results in
low paying jobs. Teachers described the families of children who are low achievers as
frequently being, "low income," "not well to do," "low socioeconomic" and "not having
resources." Low achieving parents were often characterized as having to work long
hours and/or multiple jobs to make ends meet.
How Home-life Affects Education
The common thread among all teacher descriptions of the homes of children who
are low achievers is the presence of stress. It seems as though the stories of children who
are low achievers and their families consistently come back to "don't haves." There is a
cyclical pattern that emerges within these families Parents work long hours because they
"don't have" the financial resources they need; because they work long hours they "don't
have" time or energy to help their children with homework; and when parents do find the
time and muster the energy to spend, they sometimes "don't have" the knowledge or
patience to help with the homework. The result of all this is that the children "don't
have" the home support they need to reach their academic potential; when children
perform poorly in school they often grow up to have low paying jobs or multiple jobs and
the cycle continues. The implication of these "don't haves" on the education of children
who are low achievers will be explored in the following section.
Lack of Money
One result of parents working multiple jobs and spending long hours at work is that
time and energy become precious commodities. In the process of providing their family
with the basic necessities, parents often have to make other familial sacrifices. Support
of their children's education is perceived by teachers to be one of the sacrifices that these
families often make.
One teacher spoke to the direct part finances play in the ability of parents to be
involved in their child's education in that some families simply cannot afford to
participate. When every dollar these families make is dedicated to food, clothing and
shelter, any outside expenses, no matter how small, become secondary in importance.
Fay: They [the parents] can't come to school for too much extra because they don't
have a way to get here. You know, "my mom didn't have gas money." And I
know the feeling, when you don't have gas money, you don't have gas money. It's
not like you have a $100 savings...you don't have anything!
Lack of Time
A more indirect aspect of financial stress that appeared to affect parent involvement
was time. Teachers expressed that time was a primary issue in parental support
difficulties. Many parents were perceived as too busy with just meeting their child's
basic needs to have time to assist their kids with schoolwork. Food, clothing and shelter
take priority over education, and teachers do not find fault with that mindset per se. What
seems to be difficult for teachers is that they are stuck between empathy for the family
situation on one hand and the child's educational needs on the other. Parents not having
the time to assist their children with schoolwork was consistently cited by teachers as
being a problem. Homework assignments often are incomplete, incorrect or simply not
done at all. Furthermore, the home review and reinforcement of concepts that these
children require in order to be successful often does not occur.
K.C: Homework? I can't rely on it because I've got to have somebody to help
them.. unfortunately. And I'm not blaming the parent because I know some of
these [kids] have single moms so they're working 8 hours a day. Some of them
have 2 jobs. Some of them, they're tired, so when mom gets home we're going to
eat dinner, take a bath and we're gonna go to bed.
Fay: A lot of them don't know [how to do homework]. I still think some of them
don't care. And not that they don't care if their kid's not successful, it's not their
priority to care...you know they need to feed this child, so who cares about the
homework? They take care of six other kids, who cares about the homework?
They have three jobs to work. They need to make sure the sitter is with this child,
who cares about the homework?
In a specific example of parents not supporting their child's education, K.C.
addressed both how it can affect the grades of a child who is a low achiever as well as
how frustrating the situation can be for teachers.
We require a project each nine weeks. Well, when you might only have seven
grades, one [low] grade may tear your average to shreds. Well, one of them was to
build a volcano. They had every direction and it really didn't require a whole lot of
supplies. Dirt, and empty soup can, baking soda and vinegar. But believe it or not,
I had about 5 kids that did not do it. I did everything but do it for them. You've got
dirt and you could find a soup can...plus I had all that. But, I draw the line to a
certain point. Like, meet me halfway parents. Show your child that you care
about their education too. This was a home project, a homework project. Plenty of
time to do it. If they didn't turn it in that day, they had until the end of the nine
weeks to finish it and it would still have counted. The parents sometimes say, "Oh
well." And that could be an average kid, but sometimes it's lower achievers, which
hurts their grade.
One frustration with home assignments noted by several teachers, was a lack of
parental response to teacher requests for their help at home. Teachers attempt to
communicate the importance of support at home through the use of daily agendas, notes
home and calls to parents. Teachers frequently reported that when they tried to
communicate to parents what needed to be done at home, parents often gave them "lip
service" or said "the right things" when talking to them, but would not follow through.
Jaye: I see more so with this here in this environment lack of support at home.
You know they promise, "Yes I will check their work at home, yes I will check
their agenda" which is their homework assignments and "I'll make sure it gets
done, that they have time to do it" and it doesn't get done... I mentioned the
agenda, which is the notebook that the school system supplies, I check that daily. I
mark things when they are done, I write things in there when they are not done. I
correspond in those daily to parents and I let them know that I check them daily.
There are some kids that you know they lost them [the agendas], the parents don't
know, they haven't seen an agenda for months. I ask them to look at it once a
week, that's all, just once a week look at it and go through it. And it doesn't get
done. You know I will write notes in there that I want answers in that notebook
and I don't hear from the parents. Till sometimes it's a phone call [because] they
are having a problem. Oh yes, lots of promises when you call them, but nothing
happens, you know? I get lip service. They say the right things, but they don't
follow through on any of them.
Other Factors in the Home
When parents do have or make time to help with schoolwork, there are other
problems that arise. Some parents, because of their own educational struggles, are unable
to understand the work enough to help.
Fay: A lot of these parents don't have an education base themselves. I don't think
their educational experiences are the best or the most positive. A lot of them didn't
finish school... Some of them can't even do the homework I send home for the
kids, so how can we expect their kids to do it?
K.C.: Again, strictly observation, a lot of times the parent can't do it because they
didn't learn it either. So, their level of intelligence... it's embarrassing. They don't
want their child knowing that they don't understand it either. I've had parent
conferences with them, and they've been in tears because, "I can't help them
because I don't know how to do it... I don't understand it."
Helping their children can also be difficult or frustrating for parents because of the
high level of assistance that children who are low achievers require.
K.C.: ...the low achievers, they need constant approval, constant reassurance...the
parents don't have the patience after 8 hours of work or more, particularly the
mom. It's a time factor. The child's going slowly and they don't allow the child
time to work. So it's like, "Just, here, let me do it for you and then you write the
answer. I'll write it for you." Well, what are we telling the child? We're telling
them they're a failure. "You can't do it, let me do it for you..."
In the same way stressed parents become frustrated with homework, there are other
areas of home-life that are affected by stress. Two teachers specifically talked about how
stressors in the home can at times result in a more generalized negative emotional
climate. K.C. spoke of the arguing that can be a result of financial stressors whereas Jaye
drew upon her own personal experiences of living in a high stress, low income family.
K.C.: I had mentioned background experiences, but I also think that the lower
achievers come from homes that are not well to do. That's stereotyping, I know,
but that's just observation... .You've got parents that are arguing. What are they
arguing about? They're arguing about money.
Jaye: I think there is anger at home, you know, lousy jobs, lousy life, lousy--You
know some people use anger to deal with that. [reflecting on family stress later in
interview] I probably had a better family situation but there were still a lot of
problems there too. You know I can understand them coming to school tired cause
Dad screamed at Mom all night, and that is tough.
Home Life Summary
To summarize, two primary themes were noted. The first is that teachers view
family support of education and involvement in education as vital components in the
educational experiences of children who are low achievers. Because of this belief,
teachers consider the family issues discussed above to be key barriers to the academic
success of children who are low achievers. In essence, when home support is not given,
for whatever reason, the child's academic performance suffers. Though expressed in
different ways, teachers explained how family support/involvement could make the
difference between a child experiencing success versus failure in the classroom.
Susan: The ones who don't call, who don't care? You can see the difference in the
children, how much they achieve compared to the ones where the parents do help
them and they strive to succeed.
Elizabeth: ... our curriculum is geared for those low achievers, but it is demanding,
it does push them. Those parents have got to be home to give them what we ask
for--help, reinforce, go over the daily work. We send home with the children our
homework paper every day. A short reminder to the parents to look over this, this
is what you can do tonight...to hey, you need to start pitching in because this is not
a one sided game, this takes a team effort here. What goes on here, we need to
reinforce it at home and visa versa.
The second theme to be noted is that teachers appear to be trying to walk a
tightrope between being advocates for the needs of the children who are low achievers
and being sensitive to unfortunate family circumstances. Teachers see daily how
detrimental the cycle of low achievement can be and want children who are low achievers
to break out of that cycle. My interpretation of what teachers were saying in regard to
their dilemma with children who are low achievers and family support is as follows:
Teachers truly care about these children and they want them to succeed. The emotion in
their faces and voices when talking about low achieving children and their families was
that of concern for the child and understanding for the families that they see as doing the
best they can to survive. If these teachers had one common trait, it would be that they are
compassionate beings. They have a deep understanding of others suffering and feel a
need to relieve it. At the same time there is an underlying current of frustration that is felt
because teachers view a good education as being the primary pathway for children who
are low achievers to improve their quality of life. How do teachers approach parents who
are barely making ends meet, overworked, under tremendous stress, tired, and
emotionally on edge and tell them that they need to do more? How do teachers weigh the
importance of a child's education against the need for that child to be provided the basic
necessities of life? While teachers are compassionate about the family situation, they
also are frustrated because they feel that unless the families of children who are low
achievers take a more active role in the child's education, the child is destined to continue
the cycle of low achievement with their own lives and children.
Kaye explained her belief that teachers need to have a holistic understanding of
where these children come from when trying to address the struggles children who are
low achieving experience in school.
I think the very first thing you have to think about is where do these kids come
from when they come to us? For example, a child with parents who are both
working, struggling, trying to make ends meet. They might not even talk to their
children. They might come to school with like a 3,000 word vocabulary where
most average children are at 20,000-word vocabulary. At the very beginning of
school they are below the average.
[Kaye continues later to talk about stressors in the home]...Usually there's a very
difficult time having them [parents] come into conferences. They are very busy.
Some of them work more than one job. Or a family that has no job and they're
really struggling to survive in this world. The children, even if they don't say it to
their children, the children know they're having trouble. You find their newsletter
and papers all in their desk you go, "Hasn't your mother asked for these?" and they
say, "No, she wouldn't ask for those."
A statement made by Lindy addresses her belief that these children already have
one "strike" against them in having lower IQ's and that the addition of family stressors
only serves to compound that problem.
Lindy: I think another thing that really pops in my mind when I think about what
makes the difference, or can make the difference either negatively or positively, is
their home environment... because they've already got a strike against them, in that
they just simply were, you know... genes, the gene pool. They weren't born with
that automatic, you know, hey, we're born to certain families with certain genes
and it carries on. That is one thing that can already be a strike against them... and
then if you are in a family situation where there is no one helping you... and that's
not meaning that their mother or father doesn't want to help. They're working.
They don't have time to sit down and do it and what is required with a lot of these
children is that you take extra time. They need to go the extra mile. The extra step.
And that's a big barrier, because in this world today, mamas and daddies have to
It seems that overall, teachers believe children who are low achievers can receive
the academic assistance they need at home and be successful if parents make their child's
education a priority. Parents need to demonstrate to their children who are low achievers
that school is important by verbally sending supportive and encouraging messages as well
as behaving in ways that "show" the child they are committed to their educational
Classroom Needs of the Child Who is a Low Achiever
When teachers were asked to pinpoint what it is that children who are low
achievers need in order to succeed in the classroom that is different from most other
children, four primary academic "needs" were identified, (1) repetition/reinforcement of
material, (2) explicit instruction, (3) individual attention and, (4) experiential learning
Repetition and Reinforcement
The most frequently cited classroom need of children who are low achievers was
repetition/reinforcement of material. Teachers used words like "repetition,"
"reinforcement," "drill" and "practice" to describe how students who are low achieving
need to "go over" or study new concepts more frequently than other students, in order to
understand them. Maryellen gave an interesting description of the repetition process.
Often times it's a lot of repetition in various forms, so it's a variation on the same
theme. In other words the teaching becomes a fugue. [The kids] hear the same
thing over and over again...until they can really feel comfortable that they have
Fay described this "fugue" type teaching when she shared how she addresses the
need for repetition while teaching spelling.
It's build a word and then they spell it and then they say it; then spell it and read it;
then spell it and say it; then write it and spell it and say it; and then they spell it and
say it three more times looking at the board, their paper and then nothing and then
they say it. I call on one student to say it and then another one to use it in a
sentence. It's just phonetic build up of the word. You break it down phonetically,
you build it up phonetically. Show them pieces and parts and then they say it back
and forth, do choral, they write it. And then I pick one person to spell the word.
It's just a process like that. And then after we've done all 30 words we do a
penmanship page where they write them out 5 times to practice and then they take
their spelling test. It's still real fresh in their minds and they're making 100's. And
they're like, "I never get 100 on my spelling test!"
Marion prepares her students for tests by doing practice tests and material review
right up until the moment they start the "real" test.
We took an English [practice] test yesterday and today. Then they did one on their
own. Well, what's a noun? Now we talked about that all year long. We talked
about it as I as giving out this test. We talked about it, "Now remember what a
noun is?" And I gave them the definition of a noun and of a verb to help them
through it, but today's test was totally on their own.
The second "need" of children who are low achievers in the classroom is the need
for explicit instruction. K.C. discussed this explicit instruction in terms of the difficulties
children who are low achievers have in generalizing concepts that they learn to other
K.C.: You've got to show them that 2 times 1 is 2 because, "see you only have one
'2' so that's '2'." And even though they can go, two, four, six, eight, they can do
the counting, the skip counting because they've learned that. They've had enough
repetition from kindergarten, first and second. They can do that. But they don't
get that when it comes to multiplication.
Interviewer: It doesn't carry over?
K.C.: They don't connect the two.
Interviewer: So once they get it, if you teach them 2 times 2 is 4 do they remember
2 times 2 is 4?
K.C.: If they practice it enough times and it's drilled into them enough times? Yes.
Interviewer: So not only do they need repetition, but they need explicit teaching of
each skill? You don't expect them to just generalize it to the next area?
K.C.: Each skill. Exactly, exactly.
Children who are low achievers were also described as often needing explicit
instructions or explanations for how to complete assignments. Lindy explained how she
has to break down information when teaching reading comprehension skills.
For comprehension you have to stop and talk about it, every little bit, dissect it,
every little bit, so that they can realize what it is exactly that's being asked of them.
The third need of children who are low achievers indicated by teachers was
individual attention. All teachers discussed this need, either directly or indirectly,
through reference to using "small group" and/or "one-on-one" instruction as a method of
addressing the needs of children who are low achievers. This individualized time was
described by one teacher as being time to address, "different standards that they're having
problems with or different ideas that they're having problems with." Sometimes teachers
just described how they interacted with children who are low achievers and those
descriptions indicated that there were a lot of individualized interactions occurring with
K.C.: Anyway, pre writing. We'll have discussion and I'll ask, "What do you have
an interest in? What do you do after school? What are hobbies?" and of course
sometimes I have to explain that. What a hobby is. And they give me a name. I
get their background experience and then I put these down. And I'll ask, "Is there
anything here that fits? That goes together?" Then one thing leads to another and
almost every time it's, "I could do this!" and I say, "You sure could!" Now
sometimes they, for time...because time is a factor in school, they are allowed to
dictate to me and I write. But I do not tell them a thing; I write exactly what they
Variety of Modalities
The fourth academic need of children who are low achievers indicated by teachers
was the use of a variety of teaching modalities. Possibly because many of these children
were observed to have difficulty reading, written word was not mentioned at all as a
useful mode of teaching children who are low achievers. Teachers expressed that these
children tend to learn information more effectively when it is presented as a "hands on"
or active learning experience. It seems the more senses that are involved and stimulated,
the better chance these children have at understanding the information.
Maryellen: Our math is the Saxon math. It's all hands on, very teacher directed.
Unless a child is totally not paying attention for one reason or the other, there's no
reason why they shouldn't be successful with the math program.
Susan: The way I teach is I try to tap into all the different modalities and I think
that's important. I think a lot of teachers teach the same way everyday and don't
try to reach out to the kids-like the visual kids or the kids who have to learn it using
their hands. I think it's important to tap into all [modalities], especially the
multiple intelligence, and teach them that way.
Two teachers talked about drawing on their personal experiences in school to help
them devise multi-modal ways to teach. Jaye, a fifth grade teacher, described the use of
methods that may be more prominent in lower grades, but successful with her fifth
Jaye: I use hands on manipulatives, I do the same thing in different ways because
they need that and I'm a huge believer in hands on manipulatives. I know there are
a lot of teachers who feel that that is only for the little kids, but I'm a big believer
in it through college. I'll never forget the first time someone used big ten blocks to
show me the A squared + B squared = C squared. Why didn't they show that to me
in high school? I would have gotten it a lot sooner. So I am a huge believer in
manipulatives. I'm a huge believer in trying to show the kids or have them
experience it or have the "little congress" to try to explain how this country is run.
Especially for these kids, because the abstract is much harder, they need more
concrete examples, and that takes time and materials and patience.
The second teacher, Fay, uses a lot of "oral and visual" presentation of material.
She implements choral reading techniques (when all children respond out loud in unison
to questions or when they all read together) in the classroom so that children have
experience physically saying words rather than just reading them silently. She also
utilizes visual "cues" for her students such as allowing students to have math sheets, with
concepts on one side and computation on the other, for reference if they forget a fact or a
concept. Faye was "high energy" in the interview and that also seems to be indicative of
her teaching style. She described how she teaches her students to plot a coordinate on a
graph using a combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities.
You have to run before you can jump (mimics actions). And I'll run across the
room and jump in the air and they're like, "OH!" It's like, "You run across the
bottom and then jump! You don't jump then run."
These participants believed that if the above classroom needs were sufficiently met
and parent support was given at home, students who are low achievers would be able to
attain higher achievement levels. In reflecting on participant beliefs that parents often
give "lip service" to the things children who are low achievers need at home, I felt that
observing children who are low achievers in the classroom would give indication of
whether or not participants essentially gave the same "lip service" to the needs of these
children in the classroom. The following section discusses the observed experiences of
children who are low achievers in the classroom as compared to teacher reports and
current literature findings.
A Comparison of Research Findings and Classroom Observations
Although research concludes that children who are low achievers are often called
on less frequently, seated further from the teacher, given less feedback, given fewer work
standards, praised less frequently and have less academic learning time (Kerman, 1979;
Wehlage, Rutter & Turnbaugh, 1987; Evertson, 1982; Good, 1981; Murphy, Hallinger &
Lotto, 1986), this was not found to be the case with these participants. Quite the
opposite, in fact, was observed. Based on observations of children who are low achievers
in the classroom, it was discovered that these students were seated closer to the teacher
and received a great deal of attention; more attention at times than the average-achieving
students. The only exceptions to this were observations completed in drop-out (DP)
classrooms where the majority of the children were children who are low achievers and
therefore no special seating arrangement was noted. After one observation, the teacher
was asked if she used any special seating arrangements and she shared that she seated the
children who have more off task behaviors closer to her desk for monitoring.
Teachers were observed to frequently pass by the desks of children who were low
achievers to check progress and provide further instruction of materials when needed. It
was noted during one observation that the child observed did not raise her hand to ask for
assistance, but sat staring at her worksheet without working on it. The teacher honed in
on this behavior and immediately went to the child to provide assistance. Teacher and
child worked through the first two problems together and then the child completed the
third problem on her own with the teacher watching her. Once the teacher departed, the
child began to work on the remainder of the worksheet independently, although she did
not finish the paper while most other children in the classroom did.
The repetition and drill participants discussed were also observed in all classroom
observations. Teachers repeatedly went over the concept being taught and gave several
examples of its use. After using repetition in general classroom instruction, one teacher
called a small group of children (which included the child with low achievement being
observed) to the back of the room for further practice on the lesson of reading words with
two vowels side by side in a word.
The use of various teaching modalities was also observed in the classrooms.
Teachers were very animated when presenting information to the class and they
frequently moved about the room, used voice inflection, presented visual representations
of the concepts being taught and solicited student involvement. Hands-on learning was
used during one observation with students using sliding number lines to learn subtraction.
Using the techniques discussed by teachers and observed in the classroom, teachers
generally believed that children who are low achievers were able to grasp most, if not all,
of the materials being presented. It would seem reasonable to conclude at this point, that
if teachers would just implement the above strategies then these children would have
increased success in the classroom. However, teachers indicated that the implementation
of these strategies in the classroom is hindered by time factors. Indeed, what these
teachers seemed to describe as the biggest classroom barrier to academic success for
children who are low achievers is the time that is required to teach these children. While
teachers are aware of the techniques they must use with children who are low achievers,
there appear to be time restrictions coming from various sources that limit their ability to
provide the instruction children who are low achievers need. Over and over, time
surfaced as an issue in these teachers' classrooms.
Time in the Classroom
To understand the issues teachers face related to time, it is helpful to first have an
understanding of the classroom climate that has resulted from legislation such as the "No
Child Left Behind" act and the resulting high stakes testing in states such as Florida.
Teachers described the curriculum guidelines that are now in place to prepare children for
Florida's high stakes test, the FCAT, as very "structured" and rapidly paced. One teacher
simply described the intensity as push, push, push, push." Teachers also indicated that
they felt a great deal of pressure to get the entire curriculum taught.
Kaye: you feel like there has been so much push... all this curriculum that you have
to finish, you have to do this, you have to do that. You just feel pushed that if you
stop, even to take a breath sometimes, that you would be further behind than you
have to be at that time.
The pressures of high stakes testing have created a situation in which teachers must
teach a high stakes curriculum. In the county where these teachers work, teachers must
sign a document certifying that they have taught each student the standardized curriculum
for their grade. One teacher was willing to share the choice she was forced to make
between conforming to her legal obligations and providing children who are low
achievers with a curriculum that she felt more appropriately meet their needs and
I feel like I've gotten scooped up into the feeling that my job is to stand up there
and disseminate this [information] and then have them work on the spiel and then
test them. I feel a huge pressure to cover it all; I mean I had to sign a piece of paper
that said I did. That's outrageous. Because I, and I will keep doing it, that's why
legally I signed that piece of paper that said I did but I didn't, because I'm going to
take it at their [the students] pace, I'm never going to cover those books with these
kids. I think it's outrageous to expect that they will get through those books. I
think there needs to be an IEP of sorts for these kids that, what is reasonable to
expect. I don't think [the curriculum] is reasonable at all because of the pace.
The irony of this situation is interesting. The State implements high curriculum
standards in order to assure that children who are low achievers are provided an
appropriate education. In turn, at least one teacher puts her job at risk by defying the
State's curriculum in order to provide what she feels is an attainable and reasonable
curriculum for children who are low achievers. As will be discussed later, there are
several points of conflict between teachers and government policy pertaining to both the
definition of student success and the methods of insuring student success.
In speaking to the particular barriers that children who are low achievers face,
teachers talked of how the "push" to cover a great deal of curriculum results in a lack of
time to spend on concepts children who are low achievers have difficulty with. As one
teacher put it, "I only have 180 days to cram all this in." In addition to dealing with the
sheer amount of material that is required to be covered, students who are low achievers
need material repeated and reinforced more frequently than other students before they
master it. In a fast paced curriculum there is precious little time to meet these needs. As
a result, children who are low achievers may be forced to move on to "new" material
before they master what too quickly has become "old" material.
Elizabeth: There's not enough time to give that individual help that I think gives
them a boost.
Marion: [referring to the first grade curriculum pace] We don't have time now that
we have English, we have social studies, we have science, and we have books for
all of these things. Plus the reading, plus the, you just don't have time for
Fay: It's hard. And I would say, to be honest, no I don't think all those kids keep
up. I really don't. I think if they caught up we wouldn't have D's and F's. But
that's just the reality of it and sometimes you just try to do the very best you can
and you have to move on at some point. You have to move on.
There were also concerns related to the amount of time spent addressing the needs
of children who are low achievers as compared to other children in the classroom. After
all, teachers who have children at various academic levels in one class must address the
educational needs of all children, not just those who struggle. Teachers seem to struggle
with a conflict of conscience in relation to this issue. Some teachers expressed that they
felt torn between wanting to give the children who are low achievers a lot of extra time
and attention because they need the most help, but feeling at the same time that they were
being unfair to the other students in the classroom who are also entitled to their time and
attention. There were in all interviews, descriptions of a compromise between the two
sets of needs. The tone of the teachers words were interpreted as one of "you do what
you can" when it came to balancing their time and energies between the children who are
low achievers and the rest of the classroom.
Marion: I mean time is hard here... it's sometimes very, very frustrating because
you want to take your top kids that come in reading at a first grade level and you
want to get them, because those are our attorneys, our doctors, and we need to keep
them going as well as trying to get these lower kids and move them up as well, and
it's hard when you have all these kids and all those different issues, you know, and
you have 22 of them or 24 of them.
There are also times when the realities of teaching children at various ability levels
result in difficult internal struggles for teachers.
Lindy: I sometimes feel like at the beginning of my teaching I concentrated a lot on
these children. A lot on these children. I can't stop everything I'm doing, like my
daughter for example, she is bright and she needs to be challenged and as a teacher
I need to remember that and separate that personal heart/gut thing that says "I just
need to do more" But you know what? Suzy over here she needs to go on. You
kind of start thinking in your mind that every kid can be anything they want to be,
yes. But realistically? Suzy here may be the next president of the United States. Is
Johnny over here that has this lower IQ? Maybe. Odds are probably not. So that's
a hard reality but you've got to think it or you're going to end up shooting for
nothing but those [low achieving] kids. Because they are the ones your heart goes
to. You've got to separate that personal stuff and say, "Every kid in this room is
looking to me, every kid in this room. I'm expected to do this and they all need to
make progress." I don't want them going out of here with just what they came in
with. You have to go on and for me personally, it's lying down at night and
thinking I've done everything I could possibly do. Was it enough? Did he meet
the grade level expectation? Maybe not. But again, you can only do so much with
what you have to work with, you know?
When reflecting on teaching a multi-level classroom, the bottom line for one
teacher seemed to be that there were only so many hours in a school day and she could
only "create" so much time for each new concept being taught. Eventually her
professional responsibility to the majority of children outweighed her personal
compassion for the children who are low achievers.
In a regular classroom you don't have time to deal with the low child, because
you've got all these other kids and I was as guilty as anybody else for [thinking],
"They're repeating, I'm not worrying about it, I've got to get these guys ready for
[the next] grade."
There are different methods teachers use to provide children who are low achievers
with at least some of the extra time and assistance they need without compromising the
quality of the education afforded to other children in the classroom. It seems these
teachers have become very adept at "creating" time to review and reinforce what they
teach as well as work one-on-one with children who are low achievers.
Elizabeth: This is my down time (the time during the interview); this is where if I
have a child who needs help, I use my planning time. This is where I pull the kid
aside, work with them, and send them on. If I maybe have five or ten minutes of
down time between reading groups, boom, bring that kid back. .let's get working
on this. It's a lot of teacher innovation/intervention versus the possibility of the
intervention being worked into our regular curriculum.
Susan: In the morning we'll come in and do our new lesson for the day, whatever it
might be. We'll do our language arts lesson first thing in the morning and present it
to the class as a whole. Pass out the work and explain each paper that goes along
with whatever the skill is. Then while they're doing their independent seatwork,
call them back in groups of six. Usually a low, middle and a high group. I work
with them on that skill and then on reading skills, while the rest of the class is
doing their independent seatwork. When they're done with independent seatwork,
they'll rotate to centers.
K.C.: How do you get shortcuts? Walking in line. You know, like when we go out
to our specials like PE, we have to sit there and wait for the specials teacher to be
ready for us. Well, it might be anywhere from three to five minutes, so I can rattle
off quite a few multiplication problems. Like classification. We do this game
called "give me five" and they've got 5 second to do it, just to get them thinking.
Like, in 5 seconds give me 5 vegetables. And, it really makes them think. And
you'll get, strawberries, "no that's not a vegetable," "oh yeah that's a fruit," this
type of review. So we do a lot of games like that during what I call transition times
or dead times.
In addition to utilizing "in between time" during the school day, several teachers
also provide extra help for children before and after school. This is not required by their
job descriptions, but was viewed as necessary if they want to give struggling children the
extra help they require.
Another way teachers provide children who are low achievers with extra help and
review is to utilize resources such as assistants, peers and specialized programs available
in the school.
Elizabeth: We have our Title One aides that will reinforce particular concepts that
we are working on and I just pray that there is somebody at home that will help
Susan: [I'll] have them partner up with children who achieve more and have them
Kaye: I try to team them up with a child that can help them, a nurturing child who
can help motivate them. In math we have M and M partners and they help each
other with the multiplication facts.. you try to team them up like that. Cooperative
learning is really successful. When you have a high and then you pick one low and
you need to put two in the middle in a group and they have to work as a team to
successfully complete something. That really works.
Susan discussed some benefits of the various methods used to address the needs of
children who are low achievers. She indicated that small group instruction is often less
stressful and more productive for children who are low achievers because they are not
dealing with the social embarrassment of the entire class knowing they do not understand
the work. She explained that in small group, the children who are low achievers are
.. .not as threatened as everybody sitting there watching them and looking over
them... I think the biggest fear with low achievers is that they are very, they're not
self confident, they don't have any self-esteem. They're scared to take risks. If
they're sitting out in the classroom by themselves with 20 other children, they're
not going to ask questions. They're not gonna let you know that they don't know
what they're doing. If you have them in a small group, they're gonna ask
questions, they're seeking to find answers. They just want to absorb all of it.
When you're back here in the group with them its so different than just teaching in
front of the class.
Susan also has found that working with a peer buddy is beneficial for children who
are low achievers because, "working with a peer seems to help them a lot and they look
forward to that." This peer support was seen in one observation of a child who was a
low achiever when students in the class were paired with each other and asked to
complete a word-finding assignment. The child with low achievement who was observed
seemed to be comfortable with this arrangement in that he smiled frequently at his partner
and actively participated in the activity. He and his partner were able to finish the
assignment a little early so they talked quietly and good-naturedly teased with each other.
Finding time to present materials in a manner that children who are low achievers
learn most effectively was also indicated to be a difficulty faced by some teachers.
Consistently using hands on or active learning experiences can consume more time than
is available in the current curriculum. Reflecting on her earlier teaching years when there
was more time for engaging leaning activities, Marion shared, "I remember when we
used to do all kinds of fun things with these kids and still had better test scores." Another
teacher discussed how the current curriculum standards affect teachers' utilization of time
and techniques in the classroom.
I think it's really changing the way teachers teach. You know, there were times
that I'd see something in my classroom that the children were very excited about.
For example, I remember one time there was an article about toys in the newspaper
and I was going to do just a very small little lesson on this one topic. Well the kids
were so excited. I started pulling in all kinds of things about toys and about how to
write articles and how to write a newspaper. So I was being able to be more
creative and take off in a direction that they were enthusiastic about. Now, it's like,
"Oh my gosh, I've got all this stuff I have to complete before FCAT."
In summary, sufficient time is a commodity that seems to be very difficult to attain
in today's classroom. Under the current curricular expectations, there is less time for
reinforcement and repetition of material as well as limited time to present materials in the
"hands on" manner that seems to be especially beneficial to children who are low
achievers. It appears that under the best of circumstances, the academic needs of children
who are low achievers are somewhat difficult to meet; when the pressures of a structured,
fast paced curriculum are added to the equation, the expectation that teachers will bring
the skills of children who are low achievers up to grade level becomes an even more
The Self Esteem of Children Who Are Low Achievers
"It's just, you know, who they are. You can tell, they have a low self esteem look
about them and it's like the light is so dim." Elizabeth
In addition to the external forces within the classroom that serve as barriers to the
success of children who are low achievers, there is also a common internal emotional
characteristic of children who are low achievers that seems to be just as much a barrier, if
not more, to their classroom success. Low self-esteem was discussed at length by most
teachers as being an issue to contend with when working with children who are low
achievers. Teachers unanimously agreed that children who are low achievers tend to
have a low academic self-esteem and that it impacts their ability and willingness to
participate in the learning process. When asked to imagine what they thought would be
the most difficult thing to deal with being a child who is a low achiever, all but one
teacher alluded to the social embarrassment of being a poor student.
Maryellen: If I were a child in a regular ed. classroom with difficulty keeping up
with the other kids? It would be my peers that would be more difficult for me...I
would not always want to be the last one done. I would not always want to be the
one that had most everything wrong. I would not want to be the one that had to re-
do everything four times in order to be successful. Just the fact that I knew I was
always behind them [other students] academically. That would be the hardest
thing. I would feel much better about it if there was somebody who would make
sure that that wasn't always the case for me.
Maggie: Feeling a failure. Because it seems that it's always the same kids who are
getting the low grades or not understanding. I think that even though sometimes
the cool thing is to not be the nerdy type child, um, I think that it hurts. It's like,
"Oh my gosh I failed again."
The one teacher who did not respond to this particular question with a self-esteem
related answer indicated that difficulty reading would be the hardest part of being a child
who is a low achiever. She did, however, speak to the issue of self-esteem later by
recalling the effects that failure had on one child who was a low achiever in her
classroom. The child had scored very low on the FCAT and made the statement, "You
know, Ijust can't do anything, I'm not good at anything." She also commented on how
continual failure in school, year after year, takes its toll on the perceptions of children
who are low achievers. She observed that, "By the time they're in third grade they've got
certain feelings about themselves whereas first graders, they still see hope in everything."
When teachers were asked to describe what they thought it would be like to be a
child who is a low achiever from the child's perspective, they described the negative
social stigma and feelings of failure that so often go along with low achievement.
Teachers theorized that the cause of these negative self-images could be rooted in various
sources. Sometimes the feelings of low self-esteem result from notions of how other
children in the classroom perceive the child who is a low achiever. Lindy described it as
the feeling of, "You know, what are the other children going to think? I don't know this
answer. I don't read well. What are they going to think?" Expanding on Lindy's
description, Susan pointed out that children who are low achievers may view asking
questions in the classroom as a "risk" for bringing attention to their inadequacies. The
words she used to express the feelings these children experience indicate not only fear
and embarrassment, but a sense of isolation as well.
They're scared to take risks. If they're sitting out in the classroom by themselves
with 20 other children, they're not going to ask questions. They're not gonna let
you know that they don't know what they're doing.
The words, "sitting out in the classroom by themselves with 20 other children" are
telling in that these children may very well feel alone and different when sitting in a
classroom surrounded by their peers. This description came to mind during one
observation when the class was independently working on a math sheet. The child who
was a low achiever observed started to work on his paper, but after two problems
appeared to become "stuck." He would often look around the room at other children or
the teacher with a confused expression on his face and then look back at his paper. At
one point he turned around in his seat in what looked like an attempt to get guidance by
looking at the paper of the child seated behind him. While he did not raise his hand for
help, he was able to finally catch the eye of the teacher who then went to assist him.
In addition to not understanding class work, teachers alluded to other reasons these
children may feel isolated or different. K.C. observed that because these children are
often retained due to poor grades, it is not unusual for children who are low achievers to
be older than their classroom peers.
K.C.: Size, they definitely stick out. And then, of course, birthdays are celebrated.
And the question comes up every year, "Wait a minute, I'm only 8, how can you be
9?" And then it dawns on them, "Oh, you should be in fourth grade." And here
they may have wanted to hide it. But as soon at their birthday comes up and you
want to do something to acknowledge it, age comes up. I know it damages their
self-esteem. I know it does to some degree. Some not a lot, others a great deal. I
don't know. I see more detriment than good.
Classroom social order also serves to alienate some children who are perceived by
their peers as being in an undesirable category. Marion pointed out that the children
themselves establish a classroom hierarchy and most kids can tell you, "the ones that are
the smartest in the class and the ones that they call the bad kids," and that this
categorizing starts as early as first grade. When asked about whether or not the younger
children who are low achievers realize they are performing lower then their peers, one
teacher replied, "These kids may be slow but they're not stupid. They know."
One teacher described a type of isolation that occurs when children who are low
achievers are physically separated from their peers. Some schools choose to place
children who are low achievers in what is termed "dropout prevention" (or DP) classes,
where children who are "at risk" of school difficulties are grouped into one classroom for
a more focused, ability level curriculum. These classrooms are one method used by some
schools to address the needs of the children who are low achievers. Fay teaches a DP
classroom and notes that she as a teacher often feels "isolated" or "different" because
sometimes the expectations for all the other classrooms did not seem to pertain to her
students. She talked of how the DP students are "off" in a separate room and stated that,
"I know the kids have to feel a little isolated because I do."
In discussing self-esteem and isolation with the teachers, it once again became clear
that these teachers have a great capacity for empathizing with students who are low
achievers. On more than one occasion, teachers gave examples from their own adult
lives of times they felt that same "dumb" feeling of being the only one who didn't seem
to understand something.
[Responses to the question, "What do you think would be the most difficult part of
being a child who is a low achiever?"]
Fay: Knowing that I'm the dumb one in the class and everyone else is going to be
way above me. I'm not going to raise my hand. I mean, I can relate that to a
psychology classes where they're talking about something and I'm not quite getting
it. I'm not raising my hand and looking like a fool in front of all these people.
K.C.: Seeing that every child around me is doing their work, they know what
they're doing and I have no clue. I'll tell you a perfect example. I think of this
every time I see one of these students. I took a physics class in college. I thought,
"What in the world am I doing in here?" ...Everyone around me knew what this
guy was talking about. I was clueless. Totally clueless. And I thought, "I'm going
to remember this...the day that a student comes in and has a blank sheet of paper,
I'm going to remember how I felt." It's like the fear factor. I'm going to get in
trouble because she's going to come up and ask why I'm not doing this, and I don't
even know the question to ask.
Another hindrance to increasing motivation and self-esteem discussed by teachers
is what was termed the "messages" being given to children who are low achievers.
Teachers expressed concern that one of two "messages" can often times be conveyed to
children who are low achievers. The first is that school is "not important" and the second
is that the child is "not smart enough" to be able to do the work.
The first message, that school is not important, was mentioned when referring to
parents who do not give children who are low achievers help at home. There was
concern that when the parents of children who are low achievers are not involved with
their children's schoolwork, it conveys to the child that school is unimportant. Marion
explained how the parent's behaviors and actions regarding school is especially important
to younger children because they are more impressionable than older children.
Marion: I really think at this age it has a lot to do with what the parents are doing. I
give them motivation with what they're doing, but if mom and dad are helping
them at home and doing the reading, handing the stuff in, and they're showing that
school has a value and that this is an important thing to them, well therefore it's
going to be important to the child as well. If they perceive that their parents see no
value in it, they don't either. I can't say it's gonna stay that way once they hit the
upper intermediate grades or high school or whatever, because by that time they
have their own little minds.
Another concern with the messages children who are low achievers may get, is
more the lack of encouragement or inspiration to achieve above and beyond their current
life situation. This was especially worrisome because so many children who are low
achievers seem to come from low income, high stress homes. It was noted that there are
some instances when children who are low achievers and their parents do not appear to
have the same goals for success that teachers do.
Maggie: I think [children who are low achievers] see that, my mom and dad are
making it just fine so I don't have to worry; I'm going to make it just fine too.
They don't reach for anything better or higher.
Elizabeth: And they [the parent] will sit here and tell me, "I never had these
chances and I want my child to be the best and I want to push them to get them
there," but that's a very, very, very, very small portion of the pie in here. That may
be just two or three families.
Fay emphasized how important it was for her to try and help children who are low
achievers break out of the stressful life cycle they are in. She spoke of the need to
provide encouragement and motivation to children who are low achievers so that they
keep trying in school and "strive" towards goals that are beyond what their parents may
set for them. She encourages them to think for themselves and set their goals high.
Fay: I try and let these guys know, you know, "Do you like how your life is right
now? Even I, everyone wants better than what they have. You always want more,
always want better. I'm not saying anything bad about the way you live now, but
don't you want better? Don't you want more than what you've got?" I try to tell
them, they can take your car, they can take your house, they can take your kids,
they can take your bed, but they're NOT going to take your education. That's what
I try to tell these guys. Graduate high school? Yeah that's great and that's what I
want, but you need to go on from there and work in college... I start in fourth grade
telling them, "Don't listen to your parents. Anybody can go and do what they
want. Where there's a will, there's a way no matter what."
Jaye, who was raised in a low income/high stress family, seemed to have an
"insider's" view of the messages parents give children who are low achievers that can
affect motivation and self-esteem. She finds that children who are low achievers often
have a "give up attitude" or seem to think "what's the point?" of trying to do well in
school. She gave several examples of messages being given to children who are low
achievers that affect motivation and self esteem. The first message is one that she views
as being sent when parents are uninvolved in their child's school:
You know, there is always at least one child that I never even meet a parent, and
that says tons to me. Does that impact what they are able to do in school? I would
think that they are not getting the same message from home that kids that do
achieve get, you know, the importance of it.
The second message is what could be called the "chip off the old block" message:
So often I'll hear a parent say that, "Well Iwas like that in school, so it's O.K." So
it's reinforced...my Mom and my Dad didn't do well, so it's O.K. that I'm not.
The third message is what I'll call the, "There's other things more important"
Some will just come in and say "She didn't do her homework last night because we
went to the movies," OK, HELLO! Who's the parent here? It's just not an
interest. I don't feel like education is anything special to them. It's just
"something." It wasn't something impressed upon [the parents] as children that
school was important, that you need to do your best. They're not getting the
message. It would seem to me that it would be confusing to come to a school
where people are saying it's important, you know, you need to do this, and then to
go home and have the parent that doesn't instill that.
The final message Jaye talked about I will call the, "There is no hope for you to get
ahead in life" message:
I had one boy last year whose father told him, "You know when you're fifteen
you're going to quit and get a job anyway." You know and that's a self-fulfilling
prophecy. I think a lot of these kids just don't have a lot of hope. I've even had
parents tell their kids, "You're not going to college, we can't afford it, you can't
go" and that's all they've heard since 4th grade.
One teacher pointed out that parents are not the only sources of negative messages
to children who are low achievers. She shared a story of a child who had all but given up
in her class because of a previous teacher's shocking negative comments to him.
Fay: It's horrible to say, but the very first year I taught, one of the kids came in and
I couldn't get him. Couldn't reach him for anything. And he finally told me, "I
know I'm in a dumb class because the teacher that I came from said I was too dumb
to be in her class so they sent me to this other class." And he said she didn't put it
nicely, she flat out told him he was too dumb to be in her class. And I'm like, "Oh
It appears that children who are low achievers may have a high incidence of
discouraging and defeating experiences that can lower their self-esteem and motivational
level. These experiences present themselves in various ways. Parents and/or teachers
can directly or indirectly send negative messages to children who are low achievers about
their potential; peers may behave towards children who are low achievers in a manner
that results in alienation; the classroom curriculum and pace may be too difficult for
children who are low achievers to keep up with and they therefore fall behind and fail or;
the child who is a low achiever may simply be embarrassed or disappointed with his or
her low academic standing when compared to his/her peers. Low self-esteem was not
only described by teachers as being a result of the above situations, but it also is
perceived to cause difficulties in the classroom as well. The following section will
address the classroom difficulties that teachers believe result from, or are associated with,
low self-esteem experienced by children who are low achievers.
How Low Self Esteem Affects the Classroom Performance of Children Who Are
Following up on teacher beliefs that low self-esteem is a common emotional
characteristic of children who are low achievers, teachers were asked how low self-
esteem affected academic performance. Teachers viewed feelings of low self-esteem as
affecting the classroom performance of children who are low achievers most frequently
in the area of motivation. Their experience has been that children who are low achievers
will be more apt to either give up quickly on, or not even try to do, class assignments.
The repeated failure in school that children who are low achievers experience seems to
result in a learned helplessness where the children simply do not see the point of trying to
learn when the outcome they have experienced most often in the past is failure. Fay
believes the continual failure these children experience results in "attitude and
motivation" problems that are far more detrimental to academic success than their actual
ability levels. Once children who are low achievers reach the point of helplessness, they
seem to get trapped in a cycle of failure that is difficult to break.
Elizabeth: I can't do this means I don't want to do it because I can't do it because I
don't want to do I, that kind of vicious little cycle right there. A lot of the self-
esteem issue is because they can't be successful. These children aren't foolish.
They can look around and see what the other kids are doing or not doing and
achieving and they want to be like that but they can't get there because there's been
nobody there to give them a leg up.
Many teachers viewed poor attitude toward academics and low self-esteem as
leading to serious problems if not addressed. Fay commented on the effect that the
combination of family stressors and academic failure could have on children who are low
achievers. She worried that kids who are low achievers are at risk of giving up if not
encouraged, because they are, "thinking they can't do it, or thinking that their life is so
rotten that they just won't ever get anywhere, or won't be anything." Other teachers
shared their concerns and observations about the continual failure and resulting low self-
esteem children who are low achievers experience.
K.C.: I think first of all by the time they reach a certain age they're going to hate
academics. Absolutely detest it. They know they're not good at it.
Lindy: Don't you think that some of these kids are thinking, "I hate to go to school
and I can't wait till I can get out."
Elizabeth: They don't want to come to school where they can't do anything.
Kaye: They do one or the other, they become extremely active and act out and
become frustrated and very angry or they do not say anything, shut down and fade
away. And those I worry about, I worry about children that fade away. And
sometimes when you have 28 or 29 in a classroom they can easily fade away unless
you pinpoint them. Sometimes they fade into the woodwork. Those are the ones
that I really worry about. The ones that fade away.
Jaye: You know when you keep getting beaten down physically, emotionally in a
lot of different ways. You get angry. You know, some people use anger to deal
with that. These kids know that they haven't done real well in school. A lot of
them feel like that they are really dumb.
How Teachers Address Low Self Esteem in Children With Low Achievement
Perhaps because low self-esteem is viewed as the core of many classroom struggles
experienced by children with low achievement, these teachers believe that boosting the
self-confidence and self-esteem of children who are low achievers is extremely
important. They frequently talked about the need to create situations in the classroom
where the children with low achievement could "experience success" in order to gain
confidence. As Fay phrased it, "Part of their self esteem building is to see success and be
successful at something." It seems that once children view themselves as being
competent and successful in one area or skill, it is more likely that they will be less afraid
to try new skills. As the literature on self-concept suggests, children who believe they
will be successful have an increased likelihood of achieving that success (Bandura,
Barbaranelli, Caprara & Concetta, 1996). Marion described how using this philosophy
helped to increase the academic abilities of one student with low achievement. Though
the student struggled academically, he had an artistic talent that Marion focused in on to
build his self-esteem.
.his artistic ability, we just kept going on and on about how good he was. He
went from one of my lowest reading groups to one of my highest ones just by
encouraging him. He is just phenomenal-the stuff this little guy can do. I think he
found out that we were saying, "Well look how capable you are! How strong you
are at this and how wonderful!" We were showing the kids, "Look what he can do."
I said, "You know what? You're really doing good in this, let's try reading this
book." And once we did and started moving him up, hey, his confidence level just
went [up] 100 fold, "Oh! I can do this stuff!"
Most other teachers appeared to operate from this philosophical standpoint as well
and also used confidence boosting as a motivational technique. They described their
efforts at emphasizing the strengths of children who are low achievers as finding where
the child "shines" or discovering something the child is "good at" or "first in" in order to
keep the child interested in school and wanting to learn. Maryellen strongly believes in
finding the "good" in a child and tries hard to make that child feel special about his or her
strengths. Because the academic abilities of children who are low achievers are often so
poor, she frequently has to look to other qualities to find an area where the child is "first"
in ability compared to his peers.
[Children who are low achievers] might not have strengths that are necessarily in
reading and math but they might be somewhere else. They just might be first in
good sense of humor...and you know that's not always so bad.
Another way teachers address self-esteem and self-confidence building is by
reducing embarrassing situations for children who are low achievers in the classroom. As
Lindy explained, she tries to create a classroom environment that is first and foremost,
"comfortable and safe." In essence, teachers make the environment "safe" by creating
situations where children who are low achievers can participate in learning without
feeling "stupid" or "dumb." Susan's goal for her students is that they, "never feel like
failures in here, ever."
Two strategies discussed previously that are used for reducing embarrassment are
choral responding or practice and small group instruction. The use of these strategies
was believed to reduce embarrassment because children who are low achievers are "not
as threatened as everybody sitting there watching them and looking over them."
Another method described to reduce embarrassment was keeping as much control
possible over kids teasing or making fun of other students. One teacher doesn't allow the
word "stupid" to be said in her class. Another explained that while she tries to teach kids
not to tease, the emotional gain they get from teasing is a strong force to contend with.
Jaye: Some kids, some kids have learned that that's not O.K. Other kids, you know
how it is when you're picked on but then you get the chance, you're going to pick
on somebody else because it makes you feel good. It's the same thing with the
ridicule of kids who don't know the answer. It makes some kids feel better to
The Behavior of Children Who Are Low Achievers in the Classroom
In addition to there being behaviors directly associated with the self-esteem of
children with low achievement, general "behavior problems" were also frequently
mentioned by participants as characteristic of many children who are low achievers.
Elizabeth described how she could sometimes just look at a child and tell that they are
children who are low achievers by the way they behave.
If you were to sit here and watch them it would show with their behaviors and
actions. Their off task behaviors, their daydreaming, they are every bit of what
makes them, them.
K.C. also alluded to off task behavior when talking about how the two students
with the lowest IQ's in her classroom scored the lowest on the FCAT. She stated, "I
thought that was interesting that they both were Attention Deficit Disorder students."
Jaye specifically identified "anger" as a trait she often observes. She added that she
believes some children displayed anger because it was an emotion they were frequently
exposed to in the home.
Fay, who teaches a DP classroom, offered several reasons why children who are
low achievers may have more behavioral problems than other students. She describes
how low self esteem can result in "picking on each other"; how frustration can result in
avoidance behaviors and; how children who are low achievers become more competitive
with each other when they are grouped in the same classroom because they are no longer
competing against kids with abilities so much higher than their own.
Fay: They don't have the academics so they're not going to have the discipline. Or
their discipline's bad so their academics are bad. It kind of goes hand in hand,
picking on each other, it's like low self-esteem. So how do you build your self-
esteem? You pick on somebody else, so a lot of that is picking on each other. A
lot of them, especially knowing going into DP, that's the "dumb class." The
stereotype is out there. But, just the frustration level of these kids. Like today I had
one that didn't do a writing assignment. He says, "I can't do it, I can't do it!" He
sat there and just caused all kinds of commotion and problems because he didn't
want to do what was placed in front of him. His frustration level was, "I can't do
this!" It's like, "I can't do this one so I'm just gonna cause trouble for everybody
else." I have like 6 that do that constantly.
Interviewer: Do they do it because they're really frustrated or do they do it to avoid
it or why?
Fay: I tend to think it's more avoidance than frustration, because they shouldn't be
as frustrated as they were when they came in because of how intensive everything
is throughout the year and how many chances I give them... I can't do a lot of
cooperative grouping because I can't put them in groups because they've been such
a negative force within all their other classes that when they get here they're their
own little entities for a long time. They're all in rows; they're all single seated by
themselves. Until we start growing as a group and I see that, these two I can put
together... I've had them in groups of four but then it gets too crazy. I have a lot of
leaders. I tell them, "You're all leaders in here." They all want to be top dog.
Marion, who teaches first grade, had a different perspective on why children who
are low achievers appear to have behavioral problems. She views the behaviors of
children who are low achievers as a normal age appropriate response to the pressures they
are being put under academically.
We're expecting a lot of mature behavior out of babies. I mean these are just kids.
And I just think a lot of the hyper [behavior], not being able to sit still, not to be
able to concentrate, a lot of it is all the stuff we expect for them to do. You know,
sometimes they are capable of some of the stuff, but we need to realize that they're
still just kids and they need certain things done and I think the stress level that
we're putting on some of these kids is just, phew!