Last year, 27 percent of freshmen failed English, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. That percentage is down six points since 1994, a period during which the percentage of freshmen scoring at or above national norms in reading rose 15 points.

In the academic quarter ending in January, 44 percent of all Chicago high school students failed one or more courses, School Board data show.

“Even if you send an average- to high-performing kid to high school, they have a high probability of failing,” says Melissa Roderick of the Consortium.

The problem, teachers say, is that the kids lack motivation. “They can do the work. They don’t care,” insists Foreman High School English teacher Barbara Yohnka, echoing colleagues throughout the city. “They don’t come to class, and if they do come to class, they come late, they don’t bring their book bag, and they’ll just sit there and stare at me.”

Teachers typically are quick to say that the problem has more to do with their students’ life circumstances than with the kids themselves. “Mom may be in prison, Dad’s on drugs,” suggests Manley High School reading teacher Tiffany Williams.

Researchers and social welfare professionals who deal with city kids agree. But they also insist that teachers, schools and the school system itself are part of the problem and, therefore, part of the solution.

A well-known theory among psychologists is that people are most motivated when they feel competent, in-control and have a sense of belonging.

Those feelings are harder to sustain in children from the inner city, where nearly every family is touched by violence, addiction and transiency, says Dr. William McMiller, who directs a community mental health clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Children already engulfed in these problems tend to withdraw more quickly when they feel unsuccessful in school, he says.

Faced with a resistant or even hostile student, frustrated teachers likewise may withdraw some of their own effort. “You have a failed relationship, probably into the eighth week of a course,” says McMiller. “The kid stops working. That I see over and over and over again.”

Freshmen are particularly vulnerable, says Roderick, who has studied dozens of Chicago students in the difficult transition from elementary school to high school.

With unaccustomed freedom, freshmen often misstep, she says, and adults aren’t quick enough to intervene. Disengaged students want to learn, she continues, but often have adopted self-destructive behaviors they don’t know how to stop.

“We view everything as laziness and attitude rather than trying to figure out what’s really going on with kids.”

From the first weeks of high school, the stakes are high for struggling freshmen. With every core course failed that first semester, the chances of dropping out are dramatically higher.

Of students who entered Chicago high schools in the fall of 1997 and passed every first-semester core course, only 14 percent dropped out within three years, Consortium researchers found. That percent rose to 32 for students who failed one course and 45 for those who failed two courses.

Not just Chicago

Poor student motivation is a key educational issue for the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.

Last spring, the NRC proposed a 15-year study focusing on four questions central to school reform. Among them, “How can student engagement in the learning process and motivation to learn be increased?”

The existing research on student motivation lacks both an agreed-on set of principles and an understanding of how to apply them systematically to the everyday lives of teachers and students, the NRC reports.

Meanwhile, the agency points to national surveys revealing widespread disengagement with schooling. One conducted by Public Agenda found two-thirds of teenagers agreeing that they could do much better in school if they tried, and half of teens reporting that their schools fail to challenge them to do their best.

Elizabeth Duffrin

Students’ attitudes

“It’s pointless to go to a class where you’re not going to learn anything because it’s too hard. Why are you going?”

Diosy Marrero, 11th grade,Steinmetz High School

“They condition their minds that ‘I can’t learn this because it’s too hard.’ They are unwilling to make the extra effort.”

Biology teacher

Minnie Bounds-Beverly,

Dunbar High School

Students who avoid hard work may be suffering from what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” Personal criticism is one source of the condition, says Carol Dweck, a Columbia University researcher who is an expert on the topic. But so is the wrong kind of praise, she says.

Over time, children who have heard their success attributed to intelligence rather than to hard work may come to fear challenge, she explains. “They feel ‘If it’s hard, I’m not smart.'”

In one experiment, Dweck asked students to respond to this scenario: They are taking a new course. They are excited about the subject and really like the teacher. For the first test, they study a medium amount of time but end up getting a poor grade.

Some kids said they would study harder for the next test. The helpless ones reported they would consider working less hard in the future and they would consider cheating. And although the scenario stipulated that students liked the course, Dweck adds, the helpless students commented that they did not.

Dweck says that even high school isn’t too late to turn helpless students around. She offers a few suggestions:

Treat mistakes as though they are valuable information about what a student needs to focus on next. In Japan, teachers actually praise mistakes that are interesting and shed light on the process, she says.

Don’t simply advise students to work harder. They may not know what that means, she notes. Rather, teachers should give specific strategies, such as outlining material or self-testing. “Kids think if they read through something once with the radio on while taking to their friends on the phone, that’s studying.”

Encourage lots of questions. Helpless students often hide their confusion.

Avoid praising assignments that students do perfectly. “One thing I would say is ‘Oh, this must not have been challenging enough for you. I’m sorry I wasted your time.’ ”


“The main thing kids argue about is, ‘This class is boring.’… An assignment is on the board, and you finish that and the teacher gives you another one and another one.”

Joseph Holloway, 10th grade,

DuSable High School

“If you’re assigned something you don’t want to do, you’re not going to put as much effort into it as if you had a choice.”

Elizabeth Cobacho, 10th grade,

Roosevelt High School

When students are genuinely interested in school work, they not only work harder but also work smarter, according to Susan Nolen of the University of Washington, who studies learning and motivation.

In contrast to students who are just working for a grade, interested kids use strategies that help them understand the subject matter more deeply, she says.

For instance, where “internally motivated” students might relate new material to what they already know, or try to summarize it in their own words, the “externally motivated” often rely on rote memorization, she reports. “Its not just ‘I’m motivated’ or ‘I’m not motivated,’ it’s ‘What’s the motivation?'”

Several strategies can boost students’ internal motivation, Nolen says.

Give students choices. Research has shown that people work harder when they exercise some control over their work. Students, however, are rarely given that opportunity. Nolen has seen instances where homework compliance increased dramatically simply because the teacher allowed students to select their own problems or worksheets.

Give students a sense of purpose. People are more motivated when they see themselves progressing toward a meaningful goal. The sense of accomplishment students get from reaching typical classroom objectives—finish the chapter, take the test—is more like a sense of relief, Nolen says. “You turned it in. You don’t have to deal with it anymore.” Teachers likely would get more out of their students if they had them identify a specific skill they would like to improve—in English, that might be essay organization or word choice—or presented them with an interesting real-life problem to solve.

Nolen says that portfolios of student work also can help motivate students, especially those with low performance levels. With a portfolio, she says, students can see their own progress and not simply how they compare with other students.

Help students tackle a topic the same way scholars do. In history, for example, this would mean analyzing and comparing primary sources, not just memorizing facts.

Nolen has found that most teachers approve of “active learning” methods even though they cling to traditional ones like lecturing and board work. They say they don’t adopt new approaches because they feel pressured to cover material for standardized tests and believe that doing so with active learning would take too much time.

Another roadblock, she says, is the reluctance of states and school districts to invest money in helping teachers learn these more complex strategies. Although research has shown that teachers need classroom coaching to significantly change their teaching, most are subjected instead to one-shot workshops.

“You get someone like me to talk for half a day, and then I never see them again,” says Nolen.

“They get real jazzed about it, and then you go away, and they can’t figure out how to do it.”

Professional development needs to be an ongoing, schoolwide endeavor, agrees Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University and a specialist in student motivation and school structure. But to reach students, she says, teachers need more than good instructional strategies.

“More than in the past, motivational researchers are studying the nature of relationships that students develop with adults,” she notes. A school’s culture and structure can bolster those relationships, or they can undermine them, she says.

School structure

“It was easier in elementary school because the teachers focused on you. In high school, they have a lot of kids so some teachers help you out and some don’t.”

Christopher Cruz, 10th grade,

Steinmetz High School

“If I happen to have students in common with teachers who happen to have the same lunch or prep period, then I’m likely to be able to talk with them … about how to support particular students.”

Social studies teacher Deborah Pope,

Schurz High School

Research confirms what common sense suggests: Students work harder for teachers they know and trust. In large urban high schools, overburdened teachers and large, crowded buildings can leave students feeling lost and alone.

“I feel like a broken record; they need to be smaller,” says Anthony Bryk, senior director of the Consortium, whose research over more than a decade has found that smaller schools help foster more trusting relationships between students and staff.

Even a large high school can be restructured to give students a closer connection with fewer adults, Bryk notes. One option is having students spend all four years with the same homeroom teacher. Another is having them spend two years with the same core-subject teachers. A third is block scheduling, which allows a full year of a course to be taught in a semester of double-period classes and reduces the number of students a teacher sees at any given time.

A potentially more effective way to go is to break large schools into smaller learning communities within the same building. However, the schools most in need of more personalization, large, overcrowded ones, have the hardest time doing this. They not only lack space—sometimes teachers must share classrooms—but also have a harder time coordinating class schedules to give small schools of students the same teachers.

Some Chicago high schools have isolated one or two programs, such as International Baccalaureate and ROTC, says Edward Klunk of the School Board’s High School Development Office. But he knows of only a handful that provide small schools for every student.

Logistics aren’t the only obstacle, Klunk observes. When he was principal at Amundson High School in Lincoln Square, he once organized his freshmen into a small school, giving them all the same set of core-course teachers. Teachers had common planning time to discuss the needs of individual students, but they didn’t want to work together, he says. The next year, he dropped the idea. “I didn’t get the teacher buy-in.”

Teachers’ willingness to work with each other and to attend to the individual needs of students is crucial, agrees Michael Klonsky, who directs the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If it isn’t a small schools culture, then you’re not going to get the same results.”

More data to come

Additional data on course failure will be presented as part of a report the Consortium on Chicago School Research plans to release this spring. The report will cover a decade of data on Chicago’s public high schools, including course enrollment, attendance rates and failure rates.

School culture

“If I don’t participate in class, The teachers that do [care], they’ll ask me, do I know what I’m doing? The ones that don’t are like, ‘He’s another kid, just fail him.'”

Ronald Williams, 9th grade,

Lincoln Park High School

“They don’t have the skills, plus they don’t have the attitude. They don’t have the motivation, they don’t have anything. No high school should be on probation as long as they continue to get an inferior product from the elementary schools.”

Chicago High School Principal,

name withheld on request

In Chicago, students who are most engaged in learning are in schools where teachers combine caring with high expectations, according to a 1996 Consortium study. Students who reported working harder also responded favorably to statements such as: “My math teacher encourages extra work when I don’t understand,” and “Most of my teachers really listen to what I have to say.”

Factors such as race, the percentage of low-income students at the school and the poverty level of the neighborhood had no bearing on students’ effort or interest in school work, the study found.

The study also noted a sharp drop-off between 8th grade and high school in the degree of personal concern students sensed from their teachers.

In an effort to get teachers more engaged with students, the School Board, in 1997, mandated a freshmen advisory period at each high school; subsequently, it added the other grade levels. Advisories, usually led by the homeroom teacher, meet a minimum of 30 minutes a week and have the option of following a School Board curriculum on topics having to do with academic success and character development.

In a recent study of high schools on probation, G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University found teachers spent more advisory time on test preparation than on helping teens with social issues. He believes the absence of training left teachers ill-prepared to take on an unfamiliar role. “It’s not that there uncaring people; they just don’t feel competent to deal with personal issues that kids bring to school.”

Teachers tend to oppose small schools for the same reason, he believes. “When you start putting kids and teachers into more intimate contexts, the teachers don’t feel comfortable, and don’t want to do it.”

Teachers may also resist the increased collaboration with colleagues that small schools require, Bryk observes.

In recent Consortium surveys, high school teachers reported slightly better school cultures than they did in the past. Over all, though, school cultures remain poor, with low levels of trust between colleagues and little interest in innovation. “There are negative histories in many of these faculties,” says Bryk.

While negative school cultures are difficult to turn around, says Stipek of Stanford, administrators can make headway by providing teachers with the same kind of support it takes to motivate students.

For instance, just as students are more invested in assignments they choose, teachers are more invested in school programs and policies they helped to select. Just as students avoid asking questions when they fear embarrassment, teachers are unlikely to seek help from administrators who appear unsympathetic.

“Teachers can motivate students only if they are motivated,” Stipek says. “The school culture can make or break a teacher in the same way the classroom culture can support or undermine students efforts to learn.”

Frustrated teacher doesn’t know what to do:

It’s a winter morning at a Chicago public high school, and one algebra teacher, a tense, middle-aged woman, is ready to boil over. Circulating through the room and glancing at each desktop, she sees that only five students have completed the worksheets she sent home with them yesterday.

She says nothing to the students with missing homework. But to one of the few who attempted the worksheet, she snaps: “You know I don’t accept work like this. How long have we been together?” The girl had neglected to copy the problems onto a separate piece of paper and show her work. When the teacher moves away, the girl quietly rips her homework in half, crumples it and drops it on the floor.

To a boy who forgot his pencil: “You can tell your mother she wasted her time coming down here to talk to me. You have no interest in anything to do with school. You can’t even remember to bring a pencil.”

Several students in the back of the room are talking. She tells them that if they don’t want to learn, they can fall asleep—just keep quiet. As for those who won’t do their homework, the school should just give them their walking papers, she says. “You couldn’t care less. You flunked.”

The semester is ending, and the teacher is frustrated. More than half her students are likely to fail.

If the unmotivated students would leave and get a job, they might learn to value education, she thinks. Her own immigrant parents gave her a clear choice: “Go to school, or you work in the ‘steam farm,'” as they called the sweltering back room of the family business. “It was simple,” she says.

Her own husband dropped out of school, but after three years of tedious factory work, got a GED and went to college. Now he’s a Chicago public school teacher.

In truth, she says she can’t even get her own teenage son to do his homework. Sometimes she wonders, What kind of teacher am I if I can’t motivate my own son? At open house, the teacher makes a point of shaking hands of parents of successful students. “I’m jealous. I wish that parents who have a way of motivating kids would tell the rest of us how they do it.”

The teacher feels she’s doing the best she can. Every day, she assigns homework. Every night, she grades the few papers she receives, and returns them the next morning. She arrives early to teach in a before-school tutoring program that is open to all students but that few attend.

“My success rate is abysmal,” she confesses. She worries about what the future holds for her failing students. “These four years are going to affect the rest of their life.”

Elizabeth Duffrin

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