“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.