Underachievement Among Afro-Caribbean and White Boys in British Education

Subject: Education
Pages: 28
Words: 8301
Reading time:
30 min
Study level: Undergraduate


At the beginning of the 21st century, there continue to be major policy challenges in providing the “most appropriate” education and services to children and their families that provide a continuity of care, and the issues facing the field are complex and pervasive. Teacher educators, researchers, teachers, supervisors, administrators, and policymakers, with their various responsibilities for the education of children with disabilities, all face mounting challenges. They range from countering negative criticism in the public media, to planning and conducting research to improve special education services, to finding ways to improve the quality of teacher preparation, to teaching children with disabilities.

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There is no clear cut agreement in the field of education about who is or is not an underachiever. Most educators agree that underachievement involves a marked discrepancy between predicted and actual levels of performance. Individual investigators can decide what formal assessments or more informal judgments, of intelligence or aptitude for example, warrant the decision that a particular student ought to be doing significantly better. Researchers single out different factors related to underachievement including social changes and economic position of the family. Although there continues to be debate about the definition of learning disabilities as well as other categories, significant gains have been made in identifying and developing educational interventions to address the learning difficulties of children. The new paradigm of disability is contextual and societal: A person has an impairment that becomes a disability as a result of the interaction between the individual and the natural, built, cultural, and social environments. One of the natural environments affecting individuals with disabilities is their family. A person with a disability affects and is affected by the person’s family; families are systems in which an event that affects primarily one person (e.g., a child with a disability) also affects all other members. The aim of the paper is to evaluate and analyze impact of socio-economic position of the family on learning progress and the problem of underachievement among Afro-Caribbean and white boys in the UK. The paper will consist of five main sections: introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis of the results and conclusion.

Literature Review

Current literature can be divided into two broad categories: a theoretical layer and research studies. The theoretical literature addresses the question of terminology and factors which lead to underachievement among students. Heacox (1991) states that “Students who demonstrate exceptionally high capacity for academic achievement and are not performing satisfactorily for their levels on daily academic tasks and achievement tests” (p. 54). Heacox went on to point out that while most attention has been paid to gifted underachievers, young people at various levels of ability perform significantly below their potential. This inclusion of those capable but not necessarily gifted–at least in our, probably limited, perspective of what it means to be gifted–is consistent with the orientation researchers have adopted. Any definition of giftedness would reflect an overly narrow definition of what it means to be gifted or talented. For example, some people are remarkably sensitive to other people. This is a gift that is extremely beneficial in this world but is less acknowledged than other gifts-intellectual in particular–that we typically focus upon (Christian, 2002).

Parry (2001) argues that there is a basic definition available (significant discrepancy between capability and accomplishment) that gives educators direction, and in using it we can, by and large, agree what students we are talking about. At the same time it is quite open: How big a gap between capability and achievement does there have to be for it to warrant being called significant? Just what areas do educators count as crucial-intelligence? reading scores? aptitude measures?–when determining that a student is not succeeding in his schoolwork? What this means is that a student can be very loose or exact in how educators define underachievement.

In his historical review of work with underachievers Ford (1996) identified three major “camps” or theories. One group sees underachievement as a result of a weakness in academic skills in areas such as reading, note-taking, mathematics, exam-taking, or in neurologically-based perceptual and motor skills. This is quite a disparate, mixed bag of concerns; do not conclude that all the investigators whom Ford clustered in this camp know or identify with one another. Rather, Ford looked at a number of individual studies and decided that they all identified academic skill deficits as the prime factor in underachievement. A second group Ford identified views underachievement as a result of deficiencies in behavioral self-control skills.

Montgomery (1998) underlines that “one who evidences a long standing pattern of academic underachieving not accounted for by learning disabilities and fittedness only appears through intellectual testing or from remarkable discrepancies in reading and math” (p. 72). Fisher (2005) states that “Underachieving gifted students are those for whom a gap exists between achievement test scores and intelligence test scores or between academic grades and intelligence test scores” (p. 22). Fisher (2005) underlines that the main causes of underachievement include problems with self-monitoring, self-reinforcement, stimulus control, and the ability to schedule time properly. Some of the psychological causes may involve over-dependence, poor motivation, and lack of self-confidence (they term these kinds of things “personality dysfunctions”), and test-taking and other anxieties. The causes grant credence to each of these three perspectives, but also deemed each incomplete in its view of the problem. Instead, Kyriacon (1997) proposed that underachievement results from the interplay of all three of these areas: The implications of Kyriacon’s speculations are profound. First, they challenge educators to consider the “big picture,” as it were, and identify the multiplicity of factors which may be involved in underachievement, including some we may not normally think of (confidence and self-monitoring capability are two examples). In addition, they challenge educators to discern the ways these factors interact with one another, influencing and being influenced, bringing into being and joining other elements, complementing and contradicting each other.

Montgomery (1998) concurred that underachievement is a complex matter, with many factors contributing to the development of this syndrome. They reviewed the existing literature and cited a number of explanations. Some theorists point out that in more than a few cases underachievement is due to an error of measurement or assessment. Simply, we have misjudged the young person. In fact, he is not as far from doing what is reasonable to expect as we think he is. Other theorists–Woodard fits here–see underachievement as a product of family interaction patterns or attitudes toward education. Still others see it in terms of a choice a student is making, a form of social self-defense in light of strong cultural or peer identification. Other studies center on gender issues, noting that some girls and boys are responding to perceived sex-role expectations (for girls, do not look too smart or beat a boy at tennis; for boys, school is not a man’s work like tilling the fields or hunting geese). There are also those who contend that the problem lies with teachers’ and counselors’ attitudes.

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Some studies suggest that a student’s underachievement is due to a lack of skill or creativity necessary to get school tasks accomplished. Furthermore, other theories compare underachievers and achievers and find that underachievers exhibit more instances of social immaturity, emotional problems, antisocial behavior, and low self-concept. Then there is research that indicates that underachievement occurs more frequently in males than females. And last, according to Rosenberg (2007) in terms of family circumstances, underachievers are more likely to come from unstable, lower income, single-parent homes, and have fewer socialeducational opportunities. In his article Sasso (2001) did not explore causes of underachievement beyond the descriptions of underachieving students listed earlier. Considering only material from Sasso (2001), it is striking how many different factors seem to relate to underachievement.

Wehmeyer & Schwartz (2001) underline that with individual students, informed with insight regarding what may be the issue, we can find out exactly what the issue is and go from there. Though at the same time, this emphasis on working with individuals should not preclude creating programs and approaches that can be employed with groups of students. Exploring group methods is important because it is very expensive in time and professional resources to work only with individuals. In addition, if we explore group approaches we will indeed find strategies that work despite differences in students’ individual situations. The final result will probably turn out to be some effective combination of group- and individual-based intervention strategies.

Martino (2001) talks about formal efforts to deal with the problem. Actually, they failed to mention the three most commonly employed approaches in my experience. For one thing, critics are often unintentionally paying off or reinforcing the student. After all, we are telling him he has ability, and ability is a prime value in schools. Also, we may, without realizing it, be threatening to a student with our “Oh, you can do it” messages. Carte (1996) underlines that school is hard work and the student worries that just maybe he or she cannot do it; or at least not as easily as the teacher imagines. So from the student’s point of view, perhaps it is better to stay where he or she is and maintain this high estimate–as the student sees it, it is probably overly high, because educators seem to think he or she could achieve so readily–than to take on the challenge and fail, thus revealing that he really is not as bright as his teacher assumes. The best way to conduct these conferences is to acknowledge that to do well in school is tough work and that there will be failures as well as successes along the way; but that educators believe in the student, care that he does well, will help any way educators can, and encourage him to work hard. The key is to focus on a hope for the future. Do not dwell on the failures and disappointments. These students know they have a problem. What they need is a hope; and the support and encouragement to pursue it.

A second commonly used tactic employed by school people is based on the idea that if educators will pardon the expression: threats, admonishments, punishments, scare tactics, all of that; and the displays of disappointment, disapproval, disconfirmation, perhaps even resentment (because, after all, these students are causing critics to fail as educators). Although it seems to make abundant sense to believe that disapproval and punishment motivates students to try harder, psychological research has not been very supportive of that assumption. True, to some extent educators can get students to do something out of fear of the negative consequences that will result if they do not do it. But for the most part, negating students just results in their discouragement, resentment, sense of defeat, self-recrimination, anger, self- pity, and the like–not enthusiastic efforts to improve and turn things around. Being called a loser tends to make one feel like a loser, and then do what losers do, rather than make one want to win and work to win. Moreover, some underachievers actually try to rig negation–not that they are consciously aware that they are doing this–because somewhere in their history they have come to believe that it is their lot in life to be put down. Arnold & Doctoroff (2003) for some underachievers to be unsuccessful in school is a way of confirming what they are already convinced they are: a misfit. Calling these students a name will not propel them toward academic success, but only lead them to do more of the same that got them the “victory” of getting the rebuke that deep down they think they deserve. Educators must stop looking only at what things mean to researchers and look as well at what things mean to students.

Literature review suggests that there are different definitions and understanding of underachievement based on diverse interpretations of students’ abilities and learning problems. The hypothesis is that socio-economic factors and class location has a profound impact on African-Caribbean boys and boys in British education. Six case studies related to the problem of underachievement among boys were selected for analysis and evaluations.

Methodology Section

In order to investigate underlying factors for underachievement in African-Caribbean and white males in British education system, quantitative research will be used. Thos research can be explained as hypothesis-testing research. In quantitative research, it appears that one goes from reviewing and defining directly to developing hypotheses and collecting data. In quantitative analysis, this is called the derivation of hypotheses. These derivations may be considered qualitative analyses in simplified form (Chamberlain, 2005). The researcher examines the literature and, based upon this process, he or she derives theoretical expectations, which become the derived hypotheses. As one can see, the qualitative analysis with its feedback loops can easily modify the types of research questions that will be asked in quantitative analysis research; and the quantitative analysis results and its feedback can change what will be asked qualitatively. Therefore, this model is not only a continuum from qualitative to quantitative but interactive (Borg & Gall 1989).

The research is based on secondary data retrieved from current literature, namely, Arnold and Doctoroff (2003), Chamberlain (2005), Jordan (2005), Carte (1996), Neihart (2006), Dole (2000). It was found that a child who might have been termed mentally retarded two decades ago may now be called “high risk,” so the previous findings from intervention studies on children with mental retardation will have to be viewed with that changed definition in mind. Also, An Ghaill (200o) points out, programs must now deal with higher levels of violence, substance abuse, fear, and despair than might have been present in earlier decades. In other words, the current environment might be less helpful to the developmental progress of these children through intervention than had previously been the case. Limited results from such interventions might have to do with those environmental factors rather than a difference in the type of treatment chosen (Chamberlain, 2005).

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The majority of studies represent intervention programs aimed to investigate current state of the problem and introduce new methods to improve position of African-Caribbean and white boys in education. Intervention in the life of a child means inserting a different set of conditions into the life space of that child in the hopes that some aspect of that child’s development or adaptation is improved. It can be done directly as in remedial reading exercises or play therapy with the child or indirectly through changing the environmental envelope of the child, as in parental counseling or finding appropriate community resources (Hinshaw 2002). These interventions may differ in being direct or indirect or in the specific target behavior being addressed (cognitive skills, educational achievement, social skills, etc.). There have also been two major target groups that have served as samples: children in poverty and children with disabilities, because it has been assumed that the early development of each group was less than desirable so that intervention could be assumed to bring some tangible benefits.

In the research studies, this statistical significance can be obtained with a modest gain in IQ scores or behavior changes. If, under stimulation, a sample of children with moderate retardation gains from a mean of 50 IQ to 55 IQ over time, that gain would almost be sure to be a “statistically significant” difference. However when such results are reported to policymakers who are accustomed to the more general meaning of the term “significance,” meaning a major change from the current state to a different one, they will be disappointed by these changes. These children with moderate retardation will not look very different from one time to another, particularly if educators were not in a position to observe them daily. Because such a five-point IQ shift is unlikely to meaningfully improve the child’s likelihood of academic success, or later employment, the public and the decision-makers may feel that the professionals have given them misleading or inaccurate information. It is also within the realm of possibility that some professionals could be well aware of the different uses of the term “significance” and are using it, knowing that there may be a public misinterpretation in their favor, and still able to feel protected by being able to fall back on the technical correctness of the term (Montgomery, 1998; Whitley, 2001).

One of the often overlooked problems in intervention research is treatment integrity or treatment fidelity. This means that the intervention is, in fact, being presented as advertised. When someone announces that “applied behavior analysis” is being used in an intervention study, then we should demonstrate that it is truly “applied behavior analysis” as the experts in that field would recognize. This is particularly important in view of the reports of “treatment drift” from programs of “new math” to “nondirective counseling.” One field that has paid some attention to this topic is learning disabilities. A review of the articles published in that field has caused the authors to suggest that we have data on the implementation of the intervention in less than 20 percent of the published articles. Nor are they alone in that omission. The “applied behavior analysis” literature with children reported that only 16 percent of published articles provide evidence at determining treatment integrity. If “cooperative learning” is not being properly applied or “problem-based learning” is being misinterpreted by the teachers who are providing that intervention, then how should we judge the evaluation results coming from such studies? We are surely underestimating the power of the intervention just as if we watered down an antibiotic and then tried to measure its effect on children’s illnesses (Montgomery, 1998). There are a wide variety of methods to ensure such integrity including teacher journals, periodic observations, videotaping, and the like. It should be clear that one aspect of a review of any potential article on intervention should be to require that the authors need to show their attempts and their results on treatment integrity as one aspect of proper review.

In the research studies, Arnold and Doctoroff (2003) first of all, the treated preschool children were superior to comparison groups in IQ gains but lost their advantage in IQ scores over the comparison samples with the passage of time. Second, the efficiency with which the intervened students used their abilities in an academic setting did improve, and that improvement remained over time (Kyriacon, 1997). One indication of that improvement was that fewer children from the experimental groups were referred for special education services or were retained at their current grade level. Finally, the students who had been in the special programs tended to have higher self-concepts than students who had not participated (Fisher, 2005).

The one intervention study that reported substantially different reports from the others is referred to as Jordan (2005) Study. This intervention study provided home care for the first eighteen months and then a center-based care program for the small number of high-risk children involved. Garber reported that the students under treatment scored average or above in intellectual ability not only at the end of the preschool but also at the age of 10 years. However, other social and behavioral data were not as favorable. As other investigators have also found, even a strong preschool program is unable to inoculate children against unfavorable environments in school and community at later ages.

In pointing out that changes in intelligence in programs such as Head Start have not been a primary goal. In this Head Start program, there are a number of objectives such as increased indicators of overall health (such as freedom from disease), ability to cooperate with others, to be socially empathic, and so on. If the parents become more interested in their own education or more active in the community, this would also be seen as a positive outcome. There has been some reflection after three decades of work on the poor decision-making that resulted in trying to change intellectual development as a major goal in child development programs when cognitive development has proven to be the most resistant-to-change developmental quality in young children. Martino (2000) proposed to save government policymakers, interested in conducting similar intervention programs, large sums of money by announcing in advance what the findings would be of such a multiyear intervention program. The programs that have tried to modify the unacceptable social behavior of children have focused upon early intervention with some tangible results. Coutinho and Oswald 2005() reviewed programs for their effect on the eventual behavior of children considered at risk and came to two main conclusions:

The programs that demonstrated long-term effects on underachievement and antisocial behavior tended to be those that combined early childhood education and family support services. Those programs that were designed primarily to serve adults tend to benefit adults more than children, and those designed primarily to serve children tend to benefit children more than adults. One of the limitations of the “cost benefit” model is that it does not take into account that small differences in child and family may result in large functional differences (Kyriacon, 1997). For example, a small amount of gain in parental stress reduction may result in the cancellation of divorce plans, which, in turn, could, if carried out, have catastrophic financial and personal implications for the family. mall developmental gains in the child may reverse a decision to institutionalize the child, which, in turn, would have major financial consequences for the state or the family. It is the inability to translate minor shifts in stress and growth into these larger implications that is one cause of the apparent dysjunction between small gains and large parental satisfaction (Kyriacon, 1997).

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One of the limitations of many of the early intervention projects is that they were a theoretical, basing their intervention strategies on presumed advancement of developmental channels through direct and specific remedial lessons on language, social skills, and the like. If the new emphasis on the importance of transactions between child and family and between teacher and child is correct, then a good deal more than direct lessons with the child would seem to be needed for maximum effect. Coutinho and Oswald (2005) particularly noted the impact of the environmental context in her study of vulnerable children. She found that when children with prenatal complications were raised in a positive cultural and family environment, they became indistinguishable from children without such complications. However, in less favorable family contexts, the earlier problems predicted later developmental problems. Heacox (1991) identified ten environmental risk factors that put a child at developmental risk and concluded from a study of 215 four-year-old children that it was the number of risk factors present, rather than the specific nature of a risk factor, that determines the degree of effect such factors were having on the children. These factors included such diverse dimensions as mother-child interaction, minority status, parental occupation, and anxiety. Because of this diversity of problems, a question surfaces as to where to focus useful interventions (Kyriacon, 1997).

Discussion Section

Evaluation of intervention studies and analysis of the secondary data proves that the main factors of underachievement are low social position of children and peer pressure. In addition, researchers (Christian, 2002) pointed to the family and home environment, specifically at such factors as the value placed on education in the home, parental expectations for academic success, sibling rivalry, and birth order. Moreover, they noted the need to know more about the effect of the death of a parent, divorce, and chronic illness on achievement. In addition, they encourage the creation of more accurate and complete measures of academic achievement, motivation, and study attitudes. Christian (2002) specifically recommended a longitudinal study to examine the phenomenon of underachievement in students from the time they begin school on through their academic careers and into young adulthood. The study could investigate the age when the pattern of underachievement begins, and such things as the level of cognitive (thinking, processing of information) and psychosocial development at the time of onset.

This research could also monitor the school’s response to underachievement: How do the school professionals treat underachievers? How do they teach them? What classes, programs, do they offer them? How do they advise them? Another dimension, what is the nature of underachievers’ vocational, social, and psychological adjustment after they leave school? Christian (2002) urged a comprehensive and long term commitment to dealing with the problem of underachievement. They advise early identification and family involvement as the best way to proceed with this issue. Specifically, they note that interventions must begin in the elementary school years and not, as is the case presently, in later years when the pattern of underachievement is already established.

Peer pressure is no less important in schools than it is on the athletic field. But while self-analysis among athletes is so integral to athletics at the highest level, it is not characteristic of students in schools. Yet it helps as much to have a self-aware and self-directed student as it does a self-aware and self-directed athlete. Students as much as athletes need to be clear on their commitments and priorities, their strengths and weaknesses, their habits, their situations, and so on. Parry (2001) points out self-control–a real problem in underachievers–begins by getting to know your own patterns. African-Caribbean and white students are sort of self-aware and purposeful, and that it would be better if they really were. This may point to the usefulness of classes or workshops for students in which the topic is not math or science but instead their ability to come to a better understanding of themselves as students. A student is more likely to be motivated to do well if he is expected to do well. In fact, one of the ways to figure out what educators expect in life is to look at what educators get–that, whether educators consciously know it or not, is what educators expect. If critics have documented anything through educational research it is the power of expectations. It helps students who are unmotivated to understand where their disinterest and disengagement comes from. Some students are not lucky enough to come out of family or social situations that encourage them to dedicate themselves to doing well in school. Some students’ innate tendency to be positive and engaged is flattened. They are actually inverted and shaped into cynical, negative beings at home, in the community or, sadly, in school. If students study their world and gain insight into how it has operated on them, it is a good start on the way to rising above their conditioning. This is not an easy task, and many do not make it. Those who put themselves to the task may succeed. That is what is so hopeful. Despite the odds, some do take charge of their lives and transcend their circumstances.

It is important that researchers keep in mind and integrate a number of contrasting orientations into understanding of the issue of underachievement, shifting them as needed from concern for social and cultural forces, to the operations of schools, to teaching practices, or to analyses of student capability. Educators have to adopt multiple perspectives in order to more fully comprehend the problem of less-than optimum academic achievement (Christian, 2002). That certainly does not mean we have to buy into everything we hear. Educators must still decide whether some theory or another has any validity. It does mean that we should not turn away from an insight because it happens to be outside some particular frame of reference (Heacox, 1991). First there is the human being. At any moment in time any particular human being is a physical entity, a biochemical organism representative of a particular stage in the evolutionary process, with a unique genetic inheritance, and in possession of a certain state of physical health and well-being.

This human being is of a particular age and is living through a particular developmental stage in his or her life and has a particular personal history. Inside him are memories, ideas, goals, images, feelings, sensations, drives, impulses, and a living consciousness–all the elements. Outside this human being is his world: physical (his home, possessions, buildings, climate); biological, (food and vegetation); social (family, friends, teachers, political and economic arrangements, the media); and cultural (values, assumptions, ways). This being and his world are at every moment in interaction, with each having an effect on the other. The individual acts and reacts to the world; the world acts and reacts to him. They form a dynamic system (Christian, 2002). To understand the human being is to grasp this systemic reality. And not only is this exchange with its mutuality of effect occurring now, it has occurred then, over the life history of the human being. And it is going to continue to occur in the future as well. The picture that must be held in mind is this dynamic interaction between an organism and his world over time.

What all this means is that to completely understand someone educators must comprehend what is inside him and what he does, what is outside him that connects with him, and how the inside and outside affect each other now and have affected each other in the past and likely will affect each other in the future (Christian, 2002). That we must never forget that a particular human being is watching and making sense of it all. The observer may make every attempt to be objective and unbiased, but the fact of the matter is that the observer-investigator is part of the same world, and affects and is affected by the observed, and filters everything through his subjective, inner being. For the observer, what is out there is what is perceived as being out there by this observer (Christian, 2002). Since the observer, a valuing being as human beings are, is in the picture, the concern can be both with what is and with what ought to be. And understand how those two, is and ought, affect one another: what is affects what educators think ought to be; and try as educators will, what educators think ought to be affects what educators think is.

Research studies show that at the same time, however, they invite educators to find the one or two or three “levers” in all of what is going on that we can push to start the ball rolling or initiate a chain reaction–whatever the (mixed) metaphor–to help a student turn things around and move in a positive direction. It is all very multidimensional and complicated, so where can educators start in taking on the issue? Lastly, given that all these elements are at least potentially involved in underachievement, and that no single professional can deal with all of these factors, Ford’s (1996) writing clearly implies the need for teams–teachers, parents, administrators, counselors, and social service professionals, among them–to work together to confront the complexity of the problem of underachievement. Ford (1996) identified and address many of the challenges they posed either explicitly.

By far the number of treatment programs for conduct problem children are parent training programs, and these have proven successful, in part. By successful we mean that the child has changed in the mother-child interaction domain, even though such changes rarely carry over into child-care or school settings. Such training obviously has to be inclusive of the child caretakers in school and child-care settings if we expect substantial carryover from the home to larger social settings. One of the samples of children at risk for emotional and developmental problems is children who have been subjected to persistent child abuse (Ford 1996). Over a million victims of maltreatment have been identified, and the reported cases have been steadily increasing. These samples, of course, represent only the reported cases of abuse. There are concerns that such abuse interferes with the social and emotional development of the child and even has an impact on the development of the child’s cognitive abilities (Christian, 2002).

It has been increasingly apparent that the future adult adjustment of the child with disabilities depends not only on the cognitive skills needed to hold a job, but also on the social skills necessary to get along with coworkers and to adapt in the community. One of the advantages of the extensive attention to cognition has been that there was an easily available measuring instrument, the IQ test, to assess the level of development of the child. Now in the field of social competence there are not only the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (Kyriacon, 1997). Even though the relationship between cognitive development and social competence is only modest, there is still the hope that improvement in social competence may lead to improvement in the cognitive realm, and vice versa. As is true in cognitive development, early problems in social development appear to predict later social adjustment problems, and that fact increases the importance of early intervention designed to develop social skills. Also the consistency of social problems over time enhances the importance of early intervention designed to strengthen the attachment relationship between the primary caretaker and the child. This attachment relationship seems linked to social development and positive orientation to other children. It is related to global social competence ratings at age 3, with fewer behavior problems and greater emotional health being noted (Kyriacon, 1997).

The general assumption is that the social skills learned in the earlier positive parent-child attachment and the positive sense of self that such attachment generates are carried over into peer relationships (Kyriacon, 1997). The importance of parental warmth and moderate parental control can hardly be overestimated. Similarly, children with behavior problems have been noted as having poor earlier attachment and more negative input from their caretakers. One should be careful here to not assign causality from parent to child in this situation when what may be happening may well be the result of a complex interaction factor. That is, difficult children are less responsive to the mother, and this stirs up angry and intrusive behavior on the part of the mother, which in turn results in weaker attachment, and so on. A downward spiral of child misbehavior, parental negative response, and more child misbehavior is a cycle that professionals want to break before it becomes an ingrained family pattern. Intervention for social competence apparently requires more than just modifying specific behaviors (Fisher, 2005). It involves the teaching of shared understandings to young children or the design of scripts that lay out appropriate social behavior in recurring situations: the lunch table, circle time, joint sandbox play, and the like. The direct training in common scripts appears to be effective, especially when followed up with caretaker prompts in subsequent interactions.

Another illustration of the importance of both duration and intensity in our attempts to modify behavior of young children is illustrated in a project that involved the identification of children at-risk for behavior and emotional problems by kindergarten teachers and then the formation of Parent-Teacher Action Research teams. These teams consisted of the first or second grade teacher, one or more parents, and a parent liaison recruited from the local community (Fisher, 2005). These teams worked together as equal partners to develop a portrait of the child’s strengths and problems and established mutual parent-teacher goals. They agreed on how each would collect data to determine whether the goals were met or not. In addition, to a random “matched pair” of control subjects, all the students participating in this study received social skills instruction. Much more significant improvements in children’s problems and competencies compared to their control pairs were found at the end of year two than at the end of year one, indicating the importance of maintaining an intervention effort over an extended period of time in order to modify children’s behavioral patterns. The importance of beginning early in the school career of the youngsters was also noted in this study. Once the goal of social competence is recognized as a major interaction goal, then specific intervention strategies and techniques can be formulated. It is necessary to recognize that social competence will not emerge as a natural by-product of cognitive instruction. It needs to be planned for, in its own right, with social techniques introduced and practiced in social situations in order for it to be effective (Fisher, 2005).

The errors in thinking go far deeper than supposing that “standards” require standardized testing. The proposed standards themselves need evaluation. Not only do educators need time to try out new content to see “how it goes,” but they need also to ask fundamental questions about the material to be incorporated in the standards. Knowledge and skills demonstrably needed by everyone are almost certainly narrower and fewer than current recommendations suggest. It has probably been a mistake to ask subject matter specialists to define basic knowledge and skills. Unable to control their passions for the subjects they love, such experts quickly go beyond what everyone needs to an elaborate list that captures what they know or would like to have learned when they were children (Fisher, 2005). Subject matter experts have nothing to contribute to the construction of content and performance standards. The work of groups such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has often been very useful. When a course labeled “algebra” is offered, it should be constructed, taught, and evaluated under the guidance of specialists. But we also need the Socrates-like thinker who will raise the more fundamental questions: Must all students take algebra? Why? And must everyone learn exactly the same material in algebra? Can there be legitimate variations? Why must every student who wants to go to college pass two or three years of academic mathematics in high school? (Montgomery, 1998). Subject matter experts are not the people who should answer these questions, although they may contribute to the further research.

A youngster who at the present believes she will never touch math may change her mind and then be sorry that she did not study it in high school. But this is not a good educational argument. People forced to study certain subjects often fail to learn them well; they acquire a credential of sorts but no real learning. Many young people are in this predicament today and find themselves in need of remediation at the college level. It is plausible to argue that when people change their minds about what they want to do, they will be in a better position to learn the new material if they have acquired the habits of mind that are often generated by working with material they have chosen (Montgomery, 1998). This may be an especially important lesson in today’s complex world; many people change their minds and occupations even in middle age, and those who make the easiest transitions are those best prepared by past success in learning. It is clear that new and/or higher standards do not require high-stakes testing to evaluate whether schools are, in general, meeting them. Indeed, current standards—construed as specified content and prescribed performance levels—need evaluation themselves, and that researchers study in some depth the experience of teachers and students with these new standards. Finally, if we interpret standards as a means to standardization, we miss the whole point of vital and creative learning. It makes sense to identify the skills and knowledge that students must acquire for further learning, but beyond that standardization of content and performance is almost certainly detrimental to education (Parry, 2001).

High-stakes testing by its very name carries with it penalties for those who do not measure up. The object is said to be “leaving no child behind”—that is, teaching so well, working so hard that every child will meet the standards set. We all know that this goal will not be achieved. Indeed, policymakers would not allow it to be achieved. If such a result threatened, the tests would be made harder (Parry, 2001). There would be a clamor to “raise the bar.” It is interesting, by the way, to note that the slogan “Leave no child behind” was borrowed from the Children’s Defense Fund, but people at the Fund were not talking about raising the test scores of poor children; they were pressing for social reforms that would remove the worst overall effects of poverty. Although policymakers know that not all children will pass the tests (and, if the tests are norm-referenced, failure for some is built in), the intention seems to be a move in this direction—to push students and teachers to take school work seriously and increase learning (Parry, 2001).

Unless they are threatened with real, unpleasant consequences, they will not be motivated. Others of researchers find this view of motivation pernicious. Educators believe that human beings are naturally motivated. Indeed, life would simply end were there no motivation. But this view does not commit educators to a permissive “let them do as they please” educational philosophy (Parry, 2001). Educators, too, want to encourage more and better learning. When students are forced to learn for an external end such as a test, they are not fully engaged. They may learn enough to respond accurately to test questions, but the learning is likely to be shallow and temporary. At the opposite extreme, when students are allowed to do whatever they want, they may simply follow impulses and move from one activity to another in a restless and unproductive quest for some undefined form of fulfillment. The psychologically sound approach is to identify natural motivation and guide it toward worthwhile ends—ends that are chosen freely by the student and approved as academically sound by the teacher (Christian, 2002).

Policymakers who insist on high-stakes testing just want to be sure that youngsters are adequately prepared for each new phase of schooling. They do not want students to be at risk of failing fifth or sixth grade because they did not learn the material offered in fourth grade (Christian, 2002). But if this is the case, they would not suggest retention as a remedy. Fear of failing a grade is one of childhood’s great terrors, and retention inflicts humiliation. If a lack of skills is making it impossible for students to succeed, then special efforts should be made to help them acquire these skills. This does not mean removing children from classes in the arts, from problem-solving and critical thinking, from participation in school governance and other extra-curricular activities (Paul et al., 1997). In my earlier example, the well-intentioned social studies teachers could have found material of some significance in social studies that might also be used to teach reading. They would sacrifice only a set of facts likely to be forgotten anyway. Nor does teaching essential skills mean pressing relentlessly for school-based skills at the loss of students’ own cultural knowledge and pride (Valenzuela, 1999). It means providing a culturally rich and sensitive environment in which natural motivation can be guided to the acquisition of necessary skills. However, educators should be careful in identifying “necessary” skills. The needs we define for students are often very different from those expressed by the students themselves. We cannot help students effectively without attending to both sets of needs.

Before turning to that discussion, we should say a bit more about the issue of motivation. The view that seems to prevail in schools today applies not only to students but to teachers and administrators as well. Policymakers express the view that educators will not do an adequate job unless they are held “accountable.” But this view is at least questionable and may actually be counterproductive. Just as students respond more positively when they are trusted and encouraged to follow their own legitimate interests, teachers also respond to encouragement, helpful advice, and administrative modeling of the positive behaviors endorsed (Christian, 2002). Teachers, like students, need encouragement to do the best possible job in ways that are congruent with their own justifiable beliefs and personal aptitudes. If we believe this, if we trust teachers, students, and administrators, we will certainly put a stop to the present practice of pitting student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, state against state, the United States against the world (Christian, 2002).

It was found that the causes of underachievement are linked to a distinction between those needs that arise within the one expressing them and those that arise externally. Expressed needs include basic biological needs that are not necessarily expressed by voice but are universally expressed by bodies (Whitley, 2001). All human beings need food, water, shelter, and protection from harm. Infants need total care in order to live. Young children need psychological care in order to thrive. Successful adults need care in the form of positive response to their efforts and overtures (Christian, 2002). In contrast to expressed needs, inferred needs are those that people in authority posit for those in their power. It is adults who decide that children need vaccinations, dental work, and schooling. Caring adults approach inferred needs sensitively, hoping that if they have identified truly significant needs, these needs will eventually become expressed needs; that is, that children will internalize the needs and seek to satisfy them without coercion. If the need is not merely instrumental (e.g., vaccinations and dental work) but something thought worth valuing for itself (e.g., reading), adults are even more careful in how they press such needs on children. Those of educators who love to read and to learn feel enormous sadness when we read accounts of teenagers whose pursuit of excellence in school is totally instrumental—a constant drive for high grades without regard for what might be learned (Heacox, 1991).

When teachers have time to establish relations of care and trust with students, they gain opportunities to hear their expressed needs, and responding to these needs deepens the relationship. This does not mean, of course, that every want or desire is satisfied. Children express many wants that do not rise to the level of needs, and part of an adequate education is learning how to distinguish fleeting (and perhaps unhealthy) wants from genuine needs. We might use criteria such as the following to decide when a want should be warranted as a need: The want is fairly stable over a considerable period of time and/or it is intense; the want is demonstrably connected to some desirable end or, at least, to one that is not harmful; the want is in the power (within the means) of those addressed to grant it; and the one wanting is willing and able to contribute to the satisfaction of the want. When these criteria are met, most of educators acknowledge the want as an expressed need (Heacox, 1991).


Underachievement is a complex problem affected many African-Caribbean and white students. Thus, research results show that this problem is caused by class location of children, misunderstanding between teachers and boys, and inadequate testing. research studies conducted during the last 10 years prove that for many years, family-and-disability research has seemed to be unconnected to research involving families whose children do not have disabilities. The practice of separate-but-equal research agendas—one for families and disability, another for families and nondisability—has at least two significant limitations.

One limitation is that many families who have children with disabilities also have children who do not have disabilities; their concerns, so far as research and its dissemination and utilization are concerned, are therefore about not just disability but also about family policy generally. A second limitation is that a disability-only approach fosters the segregation that many families and individuals with disabilities find anathema and that federal policy condemns. Fortunately, the new paradigm recognizes that families affected by disability, just like individuals affected by disability, are nested within and are strongly influenced by and strongly influence policy, practice, and research as they affect all families. Accordingly, the new paradigm calls for merging two separate lines of research—the line that is disability only and the line that is not-at-all disability. Moreover, this merger is also underway as we include families whose children do not have disabilities into our research on family quality of life.

Effective positive behavior supports is needed to meet the disciplinary challenges of all children in a school. That is, schools are comprised of three groups of students, each requiring a different level of intervention. The majority of students (80 to 90 percent) will not exhibit problem behaviors. Universal interventions, which constitute a form of primary prevention, focus on improving the overall level of appropriate behavior for all students. Such interventions might include the direct provision of social skills and problem solving training; creation of clearly-defined schoolwide rules and expectations for student behavior; development of a system to teach and reinforce expected behaviors; and alteration of the school environment to prevent, minimize, or eliminate disruptive and violent behavior, such as increased supervision of specific problematic areas. The development of a school wide discipline committee is critical in planning, monitoring, and maintaining school violence prevention efforts.

The establishment of an effective school wide foundation will likely result in a significant reduction in student discipline problems; however, not all students will be responsive to universal interventions. About 10 percent to15 percent of the school population will require targeted interventions. These interventions, which are considered early intervention efforts for students at risk for developing problem behavior, involve support from pupil services personnel such as counselors, social workers, special educators, and school psychologists. Schools will often develop a student support team, or another variously named group of individuals, that works with the teacher, parents, and student to develop interventions to address specific behaviors. The support team collaborates with professionals from other child-serving agencies, such as mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice, to provide an individualized array of services and supports to meet the unique needs of a child and family. Intensive interventions may include special education and related services, school-based mental health services, alternative programming and schools, interagency systems of care, and individualized mental health services.


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