Failing Students and the “At Risk” Label (Part 2)


“I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. (Oh not deprived but rather underprivileged.) Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.”

Jules Feiffer  (1965)


In the previous post, I laid out the history of phrases used to describe students who did poorly in the age-graded school since the late-19th century. “At risk” is the current phrase. Like previous ones, the words have fixed upon mostly poor and minority students. The phrase has replaced “culturally deprived,” “socially disadvantaged, ” “educationally disadvantaged,” ones that policymakers, educators, and media outlets have constructed and used over the past half-century.  In this post, I describe and assess the widespread use of “at risk” for urban and rural poor and minority students.

Origins of Label

Some researchers see the phrase coming from epidemiology where individuals with heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and other ills display “at risk” factors. These individuals are “at risk” in displaying certain factors such as smoking, carrying around too much weight, exercising little, and genetic inheritance. It is a medical framing of the problem. Education is like medicine and student failure or poor academic performance is the disease. Children have “risk factors.” Keep in mind that the focus, then, is on the individual child. After all, seldom do I read or hear of a policymaker, researcher, or journalist calling a school, district, or state “at risk.” The label is intended to refer to individual and groups of children and youth that share similar characteristics, not the resources allocated or structures within which children learn or the community factors that impinge on both the teaching and learning. As past phrases of “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged” has become synonymous with children of immigrant, migrant, and indigenous families who are mostly poor and minority so has “at risk.” In short, the medical reframing of the problem of academic failure as children being “at risk” is the latest incarnation of earlier labels all of which target the individual student (see here, here, and here).

Effects of Labels

In schools as in life, labels have consequences. I see two: stigma and focus on the individual rather than the structures in and out of the school.

Stigma comes from labeling. Labeling individuals occurs because they deviate from the norm, i.e., students who fail in age-graded schools (see here). There are advantages to assigning labels to individual children (see here). And there are serious negatives (e.g., affects teacher expectations of what individual students can and cannot do). This is where stigma enters the picture (see here). The stigma has spilled over many immigrant children then (and now) but also includes those with disabilities–a label is required by law to receive services–and, of course, those called “at risk” (see here).

The stigma of “at risk” becoming focused on mostly minority and poor students has proved to be a problem for high-achieving students who take multiple Advanced Placement courses and routinely earn “As” in their high school courses. When clusters of such students from upper-middle class families commit suicide, experts point out a series of “at risk” factors different then those attached to minority and poor students: parental pressure to achieve, academic stress, high and unremitting anxiety, One student put it this way:

And what about … the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?) You can’t help but slip into the system of competitive insanity … We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick … Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

“At risk,” it appears, can logically apply to all students. But policymakers, educators, and journalists have glued it tightly to mostly poor minority children and youth.

Focus on the individual is another effect of the “at risk” label. As in the instances of “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged,” the “at risk” label is for individuals and the families from which they come. Such labels clearly reflect the dominant societal value of individualism where each person is responsible for his or her good or bad actions. So for over a century, labels have come and gone but the clear thread running through all of these phrases is that the individual is both the cause and solution to poor performance. Not organizations.

The age-graded school reinforces the historic labels for poor and minority students. With its mechanisms for sorting, segregating, and ultimately driving out certain students who fail to keep pace with peers, the graded public school contributes unintentionally to the problem of children identified as “at risk.”  Working in partnership with social and economic forces in a larger culture marked by racial discrimination, unemployment, inadequate housing, and a social safety net that is barely adequate, the graded school is ill-equipped to erase these social effects; it is an organization that, through no ill intent on the part of the people who work within it, is designed to fail children who have been labeled at risk.

Historically, then, expert-derived labels for failing students that target individuals and families as the source for that failure tightly coupled to the dominant age-graded school has accounted for reproducing failures of the very students that these labels were created to help.




Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “Failing Students and the “At Risk” Label (Part 2)

  1. JoeN

    Underpinning all of this is something I think you have written about before Larry, the absolute faith placed on schools, by people at every level in the system, that they are the best tools to counter the disadvantages of birth.

    I would argue that this widespread faith has become such a dominant orthodoxy in recent decades, it has effectively neutered many schools’ capacity to educate the children they serve. Well meaning doesn’t mean well educated.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Joe, I and others have written much and often about “educationalizing” social, political, and economic problems in the U.S. And, yes, it has become “orthodoxy” as you put it. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I see this same pattern of labeling in the press for social-emotional learning (SEL) and use of the term “intervention” as if a strong dose of corrective action is needed to put students “back on track.”
    I have been looking at the standards written for SEL in Illinois, those written by the national associations of school social workers and school counselors and related efforts to draw attention to so called soft skills.”
    Almost all of these have standards call for students to engage in “self-management,” rational planning and decision-making regarding their future, have some knowledge of resources they can turn to for support, and so on. Some standards call for young children to identify their strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of people in their family…not just in one-to-one sessions with qualified professionals. class
    Teachers in various subjects urged to lead these discussions.
    The SEL emphasis on self-help, self-analysis, extends to standards that call for Kindergarten through grade 2 students to “accurately” label their emotions. I find only a few caveats about parental rights and privacy when it comes to assessment of SEL. I find no caveats about expertise in group therapy.
    A look at recent USDE funding of “Skills for Success” programs provides another example of aggrandizing personal attributes such as grit, perseverance, self-control, proper mindsets, a practice-makes-perfect devotion to school work, and skills in collaboration as sufficient for “success” in school and life and essential for students who are “at risk.”

    • larrycuban

      A nice point, Laura but I do see the enshrining of an intervention’s label—SEL–different from labeling groups of students “at risk” given the history of such labels in U.S. education.

  3. If you have problem in one class you can be called at risk this title is to open.

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