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Let's stop this talk of 'great' or 'failing' schools and talk about student needs





Charter school proponents often suggest that the ills of urban education can be solved by simply creating more charter schools. And even more people believe that, if we could just have better teachers in all urban public schools, we could increase student achievement and success for all students.

But are schools and teachers really at fault? My own examination of urban children and their families suggests a very different reality.

In order to explain why some schools succeed while others do not, I have categorized the city’s children into three groups. The first, likely about 20 percent of children, are the highly academic students who are accepted to top Philadelphia public schools. Most of these students come from stable middle-class homes, where learning is important. They often get read to as young children, frequently talk with adults, have high vocabulary levels, learn the rules of good behavior, and have strong adult advocates. In school they have good attendance, do their homework, have access to books and libraries, and get decent grades. For them, schools are places where they are successful and cared for.

Group 2, estimated at about 40 to 50 percent of Philadelphia’s students, may live with low incomes, but there are adults in their lives who envision their success in life and encourage them to do well in school. These children may grow up with few books or educational toys. They often do little talking at home, are often not read to at bedtime, and watch too much television. Generally, no one helps them do their homework. They’ve learned many fewer words by the age of 4 or 5 than the first group.

But because they have someone in their lives to look out for them, many of these children are enrolled in a high-performing public elementary school and/or apply to a charter or special admissions high school. They may have trouble in school or on the streets, but someone looks out for them and makes sure they behave. Some of these children may also have difficulty with the English language, but they are often ready and willing learners and learn English with help and support at school.

The third group is the most challenged. They often come from families who “live on the edge.” Most of the approximately one-third of students who drop out of high school without graduating come from this group. They usually live with lots of stress and few outlets for their energies, may have serious cognitive and other challenges, are frequently absent from school, and/or are highly mobile. These students often act out in class or are very passive learners. They most often do not have someone who can “navigate the system” or advocate for them by going to school for back-to-school night or parent conferences or by completing applications so that they can attend a charter or special admissions school. Ultimately most become the failures of our educational system.

There are significant implications in this classification. Group 1 students usually attend the strongest academic schools that cater to these children and that screen children to assure that all are similarly academically strong. These students are generally the biggest educational success stories of the city schools.

Adults for the second group want their children to attend strong academic institutions, and these children are helped considerably when they are able to go to well-run, successful charter or District-run schools with mostly Group 1 or 2 students. These children often graduate with good grades and good attendance records and go on to post-high school educational institutions such as community colleges and state universities.

The students in the third group, for the most part, have problems succeeding in any school without significant additional resources and support systems. Schools with large numbers of these students are often labeled as “underperforming” because these children have serious challenges that make it difficult for schools to be successful. Group 3 students who manage to apply and get accepted to charter schools are likely to be asked to leave if they continually misbehave, if they miss too many days of school, or if they perform a very low academic level. They and their families often need the greatest amount of individual help and support, starting with pre-natal care, home supports, and pre-school education, and they are unlikely to get these services in today’s climate.  

The success or failure of many urban schools are in large measure due to characteristics of the students that attend them. What we call “low-performing” schools are often in difficulty because they have so many Group 3 children who come to school with a litany of problems, such as poor work habits, lack of language and language skills, and chaotic, stressful family situations. By third grade, when academic learning becomes more significant, these children have already fallen hopelessly behind.

Large concentrations of Group 3 type students in schools cause a “tipping point” in many schools and classrooms that make it almost impossible for teachers to make a significant difference with all their students. The difficulties of students, the poor conditions under which teachers work, the large class sizes, and the lack of support systems for teachers and students create the perception that these are poorly run schools, when in reality the schools are overwhelmed by the combination of student difficulties and lack of adequate resources.

None of this is to say that all children can’t learn. Any student given the right supports can succeed. But in order to create successful schools, we need to stop talking about “high impact” or “underperforming” schools and start talking about how to support students with different needs. Until we are able to understand the types of students that attend our schools, the challenges that they face, and the impact that they have on schools and classrooms, and provide schools and students with the customized resources and services that they need for success, many of our schools and our children will continue to suffer from low achievement levels and be labeled as failures.


Elliott Seif is a longtime educator, author, trainer and School District volunteer. He has a master's degree in Social Science Education from Harvard University and a PhD in curriculum research from Washington University. Teaching and learning policies, resources, and ideas can be found at his website.

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