Helping under resourced students succeed

hare turtle

In the story of the hare and turtle, the hare lost the race because he was over confident. Some may say the turtle’s diligence and perseverance paid off.

Of course, it’s a story. In real life, we don’t expect turtles to outrun hares.

Or do we?

In some situations we seem to expect it. At least, we think the solution is to teach turtles to run faster, almost like hares.

In education, the conventional approach is to establish standards and formulas for success, and bring everyone closer to the norm. For example, the ACT is a widely administered test in the US, and a composite score of 21 (out of 36) is widely adopted as the benchmark for college readiness. Many schools turn education into an endeavor to prepare students to score well on the ACT.

So, I read with interest a recent report by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS). The following diagram is adapted from a chart in the report. It is a scatter plot of ACT scores and college enrollment for high schools in a Chicago school district. If we believe that ACT scores are correlated to college enrollment, it is not difficult to find data to support this. We can plot a line of best fit through the data (see green line, added by me), and this is where most analysis may conclude i.e. the data shows that higher ACT scores are indeed correlated to higher college enrollment.


The INCS study though went one step further. They zoomed into the red box area where schools with low ACT scores were placing a high proportion of students in college. In behavioral studies, this is called positive deviance, which identifies “people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers” (source: Wikipedia).

Using the hare-turtle analogy, these “turtles” placed well in races despite being slow in speed. What is interesting is that some of these “statistical outlier” schools also have an overwhelming proportion of students from under-resourced communities where 80-95% of students are on free lunch programs.

I’m familiar with such socioeconomic profiles. In my former organization (in Singapore), we work with schools with 30-40% of students on school financial aid (in Singapore this is considered high). Many of such students come from rough home environments: mostly low-income, some heavy in debt, some single-parent, some with a parent in prison, some large families, some families where breadwinners hold multiple jobs to make ends meet, some experience regular domestic violence. Many of those students struggle in school, and social and education issues are intertwined.

To be fair, much resources are invested in such schools and their students. What is often done though is to “patch” deficits. For example, if the students come from low-income homes, the response is financial aid. If they lag in their studies, the response is remedial lessons. If they are delinquent, the response is punishment. I refer to these as “deficit approaches” as the underlying philosophy is that these students have some deficits from certain “norms” or equilibrium and the strategy is to remove the deficits and put them “back on track”, where they can be expected to function and succeed the same way as everyone else.

I think this works to some extent for some under-performing students, but I’m not sure it works for all. Given the socioeconomic profiles of these students, there comes a point where a rather different approach to success, or even measures of success, may be required.

Returning to the INCS study, when INCS zoomed into the “positive deviant” schools i.e. those with overwhelming populations of students from under-resourced communities they found some common themes:

  • These schools emphasize personal and non-cognitive skills like grit, perseverance and accountability.  Put differently, attitude over aptitude. The schools know that many of their students will fail or struggle at some point, and what they need are skills to help them overcome failures, learn from them and move on.
  • These schools entrench a “college going” culture from Day 1. It’s hard for such students to even think about college, when they have to grapple with many social challenges or if no one in their families or communities went to college. They need to believe they can go to college, and much of their social norms need to be over-written.
  • These schools help each student to find the college that best fits them.  The schools believe that college is for everyone, but not every college suits everyone – this is an important distinction. Further, getting into college is one thing, but staying and persisting through it is another thing; here again, not every college suits everyone.
  • These schools pair each student with a caring adult.  Given the socio-economic profile of these students, they can do with more positive role models. This is not to downplay their home environments, but more to help them build connections to more role models who have succeeded through college.
  • These schools track and support their alumni.  The aim of the schools is to support their students “to and through college”. One school put it well, “We put so much effort to get them into college and then we simply forget them? That’s insane!” Life in college is different from high school – different environment, different people, different learning approaches. Many students struggle in that transition. To top that, many of them may face financial and social realities at home that may derail their college journey.

Each of the points on its own may not strike one as game changing, but the collective and consistent philosophy across all of them that suggest a fundamentally different philosophy and approach. These schools are not “restoring” their students to some norm. They are charting a unique formula and pathway for them. Revisiting the hare-turtle analogy, the turtles are not expected to run like hares. Instead, a different race for success is being developed and defined for them.

The hare-turtle analogy is not used to downplay turtles, and in fact, many of our notions about turtles are shaped by our mental models of them. Put in a different way, if the race is not about running but swimming, perhaps turtles have strengths over others. Perhaps that’s what we need, to build people from strengths rather than weaknesses or deficits. All of which is quite nicely put in this video, and perhaps this is the out-of-the-box narrative and thinking we need :)

Photo credits:

Matea2506 via photopin cc

Illinois Network of Charter Schools Policy Brief


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s