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Appropriate structures for teachers to implement in the high school classroom for at risk studentsMargaret Sutherland
Edith Cowan University
The following study examined how general education teachers in a regional Senior High School (SHS) accommodated Year 8/9 at-risk students for educational failure. In exploring the accommodations the study addressed whether schools supply appropriate structures and program modifications to create positive experiences for this student group.
The examination reviewed current literature examining effective strategies for this student group, particularly in-class strategies such as curriculum differentiation, rather than traditional pull-out methods. In doing so it posed the question could these be implemented successfully within the observed classrooms?
A small-scale survey was conducted with classroom teachers at this SHS to investigate whether they agreed with the practicalities of curriculum diversification for at-risk students. The survey determined the extent of their awareness of strategies highlighted in the research as effective for students at-risk and explored strategies that the teachers in this SHS were most likely to employ.
Learning difficulties for students at risk are not easy to detect, particularly if a teacher is untrained in special education or has not been able to access appropriate professional development (Smith, Polloway, Patton & Dowdy, 2008). Secondary teachers who appreciate the difficulties the students experience often look for the following discrepancies in assessed work from at risk students: erratic standard of work; poor coordination and untidiness; lack of confidence in their own ability (Schunk, 1981); low self esteem (Lerner, 2000); behaviour problems in the classroom or around the school (Cornwall & Bawden, 1992, Houghton & Carroll, 2003); difficulty copying from the board to their paper work (permobil tracking disorder with their eyes); lack of ability to read instructions and follow them (Boyle, 2001); confusion and frustration with simple tasks (Mehring & Colson, 1990); a lack of ability to deal with stress (Wehmeyer, Field, Doren, Jones & Mason, 2004); and producing a minimum of work on projects and handing in work late or not at all (Houghton & Carroll, 2005).
The focus of this study is students who are at risk of failure to learn at a large regional SHS in country Western Australia. These students often find it difficult to cope in a normal classroom. Students showing any of the at risk signs described previously at this regional SHS, are often referred to the Education Learning Centre (ELC) by their classroom teacher. Established in 1952, the ELC has a reputation in the school as the focus area for remediation, attending to students with low motivation for learning and unacceptable classroom behaviour.
The Sound Way program (Henderson, 1995) consists of a DVD, a lesson book with 37 lessons and a workbook. Alphabetical sounds and phonic communication sounds are played while the students write them in the workbook. The students have a chance to repeat the sounds orally once and then the presenter demonstrates words that the students write down along with him. When the lesson is finished the students then have to practise writing the sounds and words and complete a page of comprehension exercises. The sound blends are underlined and small numbers from 1-4 are place above any sound that can be said more than one way, for example 'ow' cow and 'ow' low. Additionally students complete cloze exercises, focus on synonyms and a comprehension passage with multiple choice questions (see Appendix).
Currently it is hard for teachers to see improvement from the students who are selected to participate because they are unable to complete any revision before they moving to the next lesson, as they are not allowed to remove the books from the centre. Observations by the author suggest that many of these students find it hard to concentrate during Sound Way lessons and often do not gain from the opportunity presented. The majority of them perceive that they have been sent to the ELC because of low learning levels and are embarrassed and resentful as result. Low self esteem appears to be a real problem for these students. Many of these students comment that other students in the school see them as being 'dumb' or 'stupid' as a result of classes in the ELC.
There are more boys than girls in the centre. Currently there are eleven Year 8 boys, five Year 8 girls, ten Year 9 boys and two Year 9 girls who have been removed from their Languages other than English (LOTE) classes to receive more small group English tuition. Classes generally have 6-8 members, however, on occasion one student may be present. Running lessons at the ELC can be quite challenging as students often truant from these classes in favour of doing their normal subjects and therefore miss their chance to complete lessons. Often when they do this, anecdotal reports suggest that they disrupt the teachers and other students and often do no work, as a result of their inability to cope with the classroom content.
Many of the students involved in ELC programs arrive at high school convinced they are failures and as a result do not have the self determination to be able to handle the amount of work they receive for each subject. If other students ask or tease them as to why they go to the ELC they will say things such as 'because I am dumb' or they will use aggression to cover up for their feelings about having to have the extra help. These students do not have aides to go to classes with them, as do the students from the Special Education Support Centre (ESC) at the same school.
As described by Tomlinson (1995) and highlighted in Figure 1, the advantages of curriculum diversification are that teachers can tap into interests and special activities that students may have, to assist them to become interested learners thus having a variety of ways to explore the curriculum content; to have sense making activities and processes making it easier for students to understand and format information and ideas; and having a variety of options so students can demonstrate anything they have learned.
Figure 1: A concept map for differentiation of instruction (Tomlinson & Demirsky-Allan, 2000)
The disadvantages of this approach is that it is assumed that high school teachers know their students well, when they might only see them three sessions per week. Additionally while there are many opportunities that can be employed as highlighted in Figure 1, teachers may not have the training or experience to follow this line of teaching, therefore putting the students further at risk of failure.
Having students who are at risk of failure, such as students with mild disabilities, follow the same curriculum as all other students does not give them the opportunity for continual growth. Expecting them to do activities for which they have no previous knowledge again puts them further at risk of failure. Tomlinson (1995) suggests this also gives them a feeling of being punished for not being able to achieve what their more advanced peers are able to do. For teachers to assure that students receive appropriate programming, a positive attitude to teaching is required and this needs to be passed onto students at risk. They should deliver instruction in such a way that students do not succumb to failure by falling further behind, when early detection and changes in their program could have helped them achieve their goals (Gagne, 1985, p 319).
There are five sets of questions that teachers should ask themselves when they are choosing to teach in a mixed ability classroom. Firstly, the teacher has to consider whether the students have prior knowledge; secondly, what types of classroom structures should be established (small groups, pair, whole class); thirdly, whether a topic is interesting enough to engage all students in the classroom; fourthly, whether there are students with reading difficulties or behaviour problems or those with a high interest or prior knowledge who could explore the topic in more depth, and finally, whether all students have sufficient vocabulary to understand the concepts of the topic (Schumm, Vaughn & Leavell, 1994, p 613).
The CF is underpinned by seven key principles (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997). Inclusivity is one of these fundamentals. Inclusivity means providing all groups of students, irrespective of educational setting with access to a wide and empowering range of knowledge, skills and values (Curriculum Framework, 1998, p 17). Further, classroom teachers are expected to recognise and accommodate the different starting points, learning rates and previous experiences of individual and groups of students. The CF is intended for all students.
The CF with its developmental approach should give teachers the impetus to accommodate the needs of students with different development rates and provide a clear sense of direction for them. This approach may include both parents and teachers as part of feedback on a student's learning along with assessment and reporting procedures, providing information on how far each student has progressed (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997). The Curriculum Council has made it clear that it is the classroom teacher's responsibility to address the needs of all students within their classrooms and to provide opportunities for success along their continuum of academic development. This being the case, the questionnaire distributed to teachers from the district secondary school attempted to determine whether they felt capable and confident to address the diversity that existed in their current classrooms.
The 10 questions (see Appendix) focussed on whether teachers believed they were engaging the students with mild disabilities in their class and whether they felt adequate learning is taking place for these students in their classrooms. A secondary purpose of the questionnaire was to find out if the teachers' training was adequate for teaching students with mild disabilities. Teachers were asked to circle numbers on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being totally disagree to 5 totally agree.
The survey questions reflected research by Forlin (2001) that highlighted that classroom teachers often feel inadequately prepared to address the diversity within their classrooms. In a study that reported the potential stressors for 571 Queensland primary school teachers, the primary stressors were identified as being held accountable for the 'included' students progress and the impact inclusion has on other class members. Forlin (2001) pointed out that only 70% of those involved in her survey had any level of formal training and as such their initial experiences tended to be stressful. With the introduction of compulsory units in diversity within pre-service training courses commonplace throughout Australia, new graduates may not be as unprepared as many existing teachers, but the flow through from this training will take time. Traditionally, the perception of teachers in secondary courses is that they are disseminators of content, rather than facilitators of learning (Schumaker & Deschler, 1988). The survey within this current study attempted to determine if this attitude had changed towards lower level students within the more heterogeneous classrooms of today.
Fourteen teachers returned the questionnaire. The results of the questionnaire are reproduced in Table 1 (below).
Question 1: Do you have students in your area of teaching that you consider having mild disabilities?
Generally the majority of teachers surveyed felt their classes included students with mild disabilities (9 out of 14). One teacher strongly disagreed that these students were present in the class. The teacher who strongly disagreed may have had a subject such as art, design and technology, agriculture, sport or food technology or clothing and fabrics that are often interesting to most students.
Question 2: Did your training have any relevance in working with students with disabilities?
Six out of 14 teachers strongly agreed that their training had no relevance to working with students with mild disabilities. The others were undecided or strongly disagreed.
The response may have reflected the flow through effect of diversity units on pre-service teacher training in W.A. Given many new graduates commence service in W.A. country schools it is probable that these teachers connect their training with the mixed ability classrooms they teach in. Those who strongly disagreed may reflect that aspect of the teaching population who had little formal training in their area of diversity. The teachers who strongly agreed to this question may have had limited opportunities to explore units within their training that involved mild disabilities students. The other eight teachers may have chosen to do units that applied to the mild disabilities students as an option of their studies to become a teacher.
Question 3: Have you attempted to diversify the curriculum to include students with mild disabilities?
Eight out of 14 teachers totally or somewhat agreed with this question suggesting that most had tried to diversify the curriculum to include students with mild disabilities. Six disagreed, indicating that they had not tried to diversify the curriculum. Time constraints as outlined by Tomlinson (1995) may have caused the 6 teachers who had not attempted to diversify the curriculum to include and suit the mild disabilities students or they may have found that running two curriculums was too difficult. While the results indicated that most teachers had attempted to diversify the curriculum is encouraging, the notion that 6 out of 14 students had not attempted to diversify the curriculum (despite these same teachers recognizing that students with mild disabilities existed in their classes) is concerning.
Question 4: Do you experience problems during classes with any student with mild disabilities?
No teachers strongly disagreed to this question, whereas two teachers strongly agreed that they had problems with these students. Only two teachers suggested they had problems with students with mild disabilities, others were mostly at the middle of the scale. Either they were not able to recognise those students or they were not willing to diversify the curriculum so that the mild disabilities students found the work easier.
Question 5: Do these students have problems understanding concepts presented to them?
Three out of 14 teachers strongly agreed that students with mild disabilities had problems with concepts presented. Six out of 14 mildly agreed while the other seven did not find that mild disabilities students had problems with concepts presented. The three who strongly agreed that those students with mild disabilities had problems understanding concepts needed to diversify the classroom curriculum.
Question 6: Are these students able to work in a group situation during your classes?
Teachers within this survey appeared uncertain as to whether these students had difficulty working in groups, many maintaining a neutral position to this question. It appeared that the learning difficulties experienced by some of these students did not impact on their ability to interact socially, a salient point observed by O'Rourke (2004). The teachers had not really observed any problems when they put the students in groups to work on projects, or indeed may not have used collaboration approaches often.
Question 7: Would you say that these students have problems socialising with their peers?
Most teachers did not see any problems with these students having problems socialising with their peers, often these students may have a high profile within the class and may not appear toe be socially too different to peers. Not all teachers do duty on the playground, so they would not see many socialising problems occurring between mild disabilities students and their peers.
Question 8:Are you in favour of these students being withdrawn from your classes to attend the Educational Learning Centre?
Overall eight out of 14 teachers agreed these students should be withdrawn to attend the ELC. The other six were unsure. More than 50% of the teachers strongly agreed those students with mild disabilities should be withdrawn to attend the ELC. Which was one of the most uniform responses of the respondents. It would appear that if the teacher's attitude is not focussed on inclusion these students might be better off elsewhere. Attitudes such as these do not allow the development of classroom strategies that cater for these students. This possibly connects to the research of Forlin (2001) indicating stress involved in accepting professional responsibility for these students, along with concern about the students with mild disabilities interrupting others in their classes.
Question 9: What success would you expect to have with these students if you had more knowledge of effective teaching methods?
Ten out of 14 teachers agreed that if they had more knowledge of effective teaching methods they could make a difference with mild disabilities students.
This is an encouraging response and suggests that these teachers may have identified the need for knowledge about mild disabilities students to be able to teach them effectively and use positive methods to help the students and make a difference for them. These teachers may also be responsive to appropriate professional development, which in turn could result in more appropriate strategies being implemented for these students.
Question 10: What success would you expect to have if the curriculum was modified for students with mild disabilities?
Teachers in this survey thought that modifying the curriculum (six out of 14) would help them have success in teaching students with mild disabilities. This question seemed to be in contradiction to question 9 with less teachers saying that the students would be at an advantage if the curriculum was modified for students with mild disabilities.
Figure 2: Graph of teacher responses to questionnaire on curriculum diversification
It would appear that the teachers at this local District Senior High School are generally ill equipped to accommodate the diversity that exists in many classrooms. Strategies implemented by the Centre for Inclusive Schooling and Schools Plus are beginning to address these difficulties in country schools, by the creation of Learning Support Coordinator positions in all schools and funding for classroom teachers to attend planning meetings to address diversity. While this is encouraging, many of the students identified as 'at-risk' at this school do not qualify for Schools Plus initiatives and as such exclusion can appear an attractive alternative.
As most regular classroom teachers are not trained to teach students with mild disabilities, some may assume that low achieving students have the pre-requisite skills and knowledge to cope with normal curricula. Anecdotally several teachers involved in this survey suggested that these students were low performers, dyslexic, ADD or ADHD, lazy or various other labels, none appeared to take ownership of the strategies required to accommodate students within their classrooms. Students who are labelled often live up to these expectations by becoming frustrated, confused and generally resorting to switching off or creating disturbances in the classroom (Prawat, 1989).
The generalizations that can be made from this research are limited by the low teacher response to the survey questionnaire. It does not always give a clear, overall picture of the problems associated with students with mild disabilities who attend this school, but does however, provide an authentic snapshot of inclusion and aspects of curriculum differentiation in a large regional secondary school.
The lack of teacher training often leads to teachers referring students to special education units and education learning centres rather than diversifying the curriculum and implementing preventative measures to assist these students. Drame (2002) highlights that intervention programs are more beneficial than removing the students from his/her peer group.
Further pre-service teacher programs should show intending teachers that collaborating with colleagues and parents initiative is one solution to improving the connection between the student and teacher. Teachers should liaise with parents on a regular basis so they can set up goals and an individual education plan for students with mild disabilities so there is no chance that he/she will not succeed by being included in a regular classroom (Cairney & Ruge, 1999, p 17)
In closing the best approach is often overlooked by teachers, to assure that students with mild disabilities receive positive experiences and retain a positive attitude (O'Rourke & Houghton, 2007). Teachers need to show respect and acknowledge that a student's former knowledge can be integrated into any program they might implement. They should deliver instruction in such a way that students do not succumb to failure by falling behind when early detection and changes in their program could have helped them achieve more (Gagne, 1985, p 31).
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Example of p. 5 in Senior Workshop book. Henderson, C. (1995).
The Sound Way to spelling, writing and reading program.
Example of the five vowels: Henderson, C. (1995).
The Sound Way to spelling, writing and reading program.
Example of p. 13 in Senior Workshop book. Henderson, C. (1995).
The Sound Way to spelling, writing and reading program.
Example of p. 8 in Senior Workshop book. Henderson, C. (1995).
The Sound Way to spelling, writing and reading program.
Basic components of the planning pyramid
(After Figure 3 in Schumm, Vaughn & Leavell, 1994)
Who are students with mild disabilities or at-risk students? Students with mild disabilities or at-risk of failure will often have the following discrepancies/ erratic standard of work; poor co-ordination and untidiness; lack of confidence in their own ability (Schunk, 1981; low self-esteem (Lerner, 2000); difficulty copying from the board to their paper work (permobil tracking disorder with their eyes); lack of ability to read instructions and follow them (Boyle, 2001); confusion and frustration with simple tasks (Mehring & Colson, 1990); a lack of ability to deal with stress (Wehmeyer, Field, Doren, Jones & Mason, 2004); produce a minimum of work on projects; and hand in work late or not at all.
Your answers will be most useful to my study. There are 10 questions.
Please do not include your name. No names will be used and identification will be by number or letter only.
When the questionnaire is completed please return it to the main office for collection.
Please circle the number you think is closest to your point of view for each question. The scale is 1-5 (5 being strongly agree, 1 strongly disagree).
|1.||Do you have students in your area of teaching whom you consider to have mild disabilities?||1||2||3||4||5|
|2.||Did your training have any relevance to working with students with mild disabilities?||1||2||3||4||5|
|3.||Do you experience problems during classes with any student who has a mild disability?||1||2||3||4||5|
|4.||Do these students have problems with understanding concepts presented to them?||1||2||3||4||5|
|5.||Are these students able to work in a group situation during your classes?||1||2||3||4||5|
|6.||Would you say that these students have problems socialising with their peers?||1||2||3||4||5|
|7.||Are you in favour of these students being withdrawn from your classes to attend the Special Learning Centre?||1||2||3||4||5|
|8.||Would you have more success with these students, if you had more knowledge of effective teaching methods?||1||2||3||4||5|
|9.||Have you attempted to diversify the curriculum to include students with mild disabilities?||1||2||3||4||5|
|10.||Students with mild disabilities would have more success if the curriculum was diversified (particularly if it was focused on areas of interest or readiness)?||1||2||3||4||5|
Thank you for completing this questionnaire. Your co-operation is greatly appreciated.
|Author: Margaret Sutherland, c/o Post Office, Bencubbin WA 6477. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Sutherland, M. (2008). Appropriate structures for teachers to implement in the high school classroom for at risk students. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2008. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2008/sutherland2.html