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At-risk students in the fast lanes: let them through.

At-Risk Students in the Fast Lanes: Let Them Through

Does "students in the fast lane" conjure up images of students with beepers or hundreds of dollars worth of clothes, or perhaps gifted students developing their own computer programs? In one sense, this commentary is about all of these. In another sense it is about all of society.

For a society that does not control the fast lane can very quickly go into crisis and decline. And even the briefest and most optimistic look at today's fast lane gives all educators reason for alarm. More and more students are lurching through school, out of control. More and more students, as the statistics testify, are "at risk" of not developing their potential and not succeeding in school. The need to reach the at-risk students, to educate them properly, and to guide them to productive lives can be justified on many grounds--from the humanitarianism of "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee" to the practicality of needing every self-sustaining adult we have in the 21st century. But the strongest reason to help these students is to prove society's own mettle. To lose today's at-risk students implies a society that is more than a little out of control itself.

Researchers point out that "at-risk students differ from their peers along a critical variable: locus of control" (Meeting the Needs of At-Risk Students, Research Roundup, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall 1990). This means that at-risk children frequently attribute their success or failure to purely external characteristics, even to luck, rather than to their own effort. These children, because of the at-risk factors that have shaped them, lack any sense of mastery over their own lives.

How ironic that we ask these children to develop that essential sense of control when we as society lack sufficient control to mount the kinds of programs they need. We ask them to control themselves when we do not exercise control over the at-risk factors which have harmed them to begin with. If the students are out of control, it is because society, whether it be the microcosm of their rural area, the disconnectedness of suburbia, or the city blocks that define their neighborhood, has suffered a loss of self-discipline. Maybe it is time for researchers to see how society as a whole scores on that critical variable, locus of control.

Hypocrisy has never worked with children. The old saw "do as I say not as I do" has been universally discredited by child-rearing experts. Yet that is precisely where we find ourselves with at-risk students. "Control your own destiny," "take control of your lives," "say no to drugs," but society as a whole is incapable of completely controlling drugs or of organizing its collective life enough to give these students the intensive support they need.

That is why I propose we as a society restructure the fast lane. Rather than letting students out of control ruin their lives, we need that fast lane for the acceleration and concentrated efforts of the at-risk child, whether in danger of developing a disability at thirty-six months or on the brink of dropping out at sixteen. How fine a commentary on this new decade it would be if the turn-of-the-century image of education's fast lane was a positive one of bright students forging ahead and of students who need that extra attention receiving it and moving right ahead also.

That is why the fast lane is so important. For, perhaps the riskiest factor of all for these children is lack of challenge. If we do not challenge them academically, we broadcast again our lack of faith in their worth as individuals. If the school is forced to become the proving ground for these students we need to recognize who they are. We need to be aware that they have, for whatever reason, fallen behind, both academically and socially. To patronize them by handing them a curriculum that does not challenge them is one more sign of a society that does not trust them and is, therefore, not truly worth trusting. They must be taught by people who firmly believe they can learn and who know how to go about teaching them. Anything less is societal neglect and they have had too much of that already.

Rhetoric is easy, I know, but in these days of accountability, it seems paradoxical to make these children, themselves victims of conditions beyond their control, accountable to a society that seems unable to account to them. Solutions are available if we can muster the will (and financing) to do so. The answers lie in an education system geared for early identification and prevention, an education system chock full of capable teachers, supportive administrators, social workers, special educators, and other professionals. The answers lie in a continuum of services that start early enough to allow today's preschooler a chance to catch up while the catching is easy and that continue as long as necessary so that tomorrow's teenager is adequately prepared for adulthood.

And finally, you may have noticed, I have deliberately avoided defining which students are at risk. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that "all happy families resemble one another but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (Anna Karenina). Perhaps that best explains why labels come and go. Whether the at-risk student is from an unhappy or to use a more contemporary term "dysfunctional" family, whether he is at risk because of a disadvantaged background, whether she is at risk because of her non-English-language background, the latchkey around her neck, or the poverty of her life, the professional--teacher, special educator, social worker--will know. To label at risk every poor child or every one in a single-parent household is unfair and demeaning and, as research indicates, not accurate either. If a child feels or acts out of control, if he or she is falling behind academically or if some children's social skills are behind their peers, it is time to intervene. It is time to assess the situation, make placement choices, set up a social network, and individualize attention to the child based on his or her specific needs.

Sound familiar? Yes, what works for the child with learning disabilities or mental retardation also works for the child at risk, whether they are the same pupil or not. Certainly, special education cannot take into the fold the millions of nonexceptional learners at risk nor would it be appropriate to do so. What special education can and should do is become part of the collaborative team that builds a professional solution.

From the "me" generation of the 1970s to the "we" decade of the 1990s? Perhaps, but the terminology is irrelevant compared to the essential element, the need to build a society that can exercise prudent self-control and build long-view solutions. Such a society can then easily turn over the fast lane to those who deserve it, the students who need to accelerate. Then, today's at-risk students will realize what control and order and proper functioning are all about. The student will learn not an abstract principle of control but the example that surrounds him or her daily in perhaps the only functioning society these children ever see--the school.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Greer, Jeptha V.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:column
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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