Sunday, April 13, 2008

Intervention Strategies That Work

This post begins the conversation on intervention strategies for underperforming students. What are some ideas for increasing attendance and performance in those at risk students that we all have in our buildings? Below are some ideas we've stumbled upon and would like to share. We know there are many other ideas out there as well. If you would like to share please comment below.

Dealing with Struggling Students
A large percentage of our time is spent dealing with issues surrounding those students who don't seem to fit with the program. We are all familiar with and can probably name a dozen or so students whose inability to attend school on a regular basis, turn in adequate amounts of work, and just get along put them at risk for failure. We come up with different strategies to help these students but many schools still operate with a system whose safety nets are only used once failure has been established: notification to parents of only D's and F's or taking away athletic privileges once a student has failed. Often times teachers compound the problem and take no accountability for student failure by viewing their job as the great dispenser of content specific knowledge. Below are some of the many strategies that effective schools are implementing to help address underperforming students. As administrators we can ignore the problem and continue to operate schools focused on teaching instead of student learning or we can advocate and create programs to help all students learn. In the end it always comes back to us and the direction we choose to pursue.

Early Intervention - An ounce of Prevention
Many schools try to address the problem by being proactive with their incoming Freshmen class. Once enrollment is determined for the coming school year, schools choose to survey teachers and parents of the incoming class to identify those students who struggle with chronic absenteeism, a lack of study/test taking skills, and display a strong tendency to not turn in work. These students are invited to summer sessions on the various aspects of high school life. Students are treated in a respectful way and provided with strategies to make their transition to high school effective. In certain circumstances attendance and homework contracts are often agreed upon before a student ever enters high school. School counselors or support teams armed with the knowledge of which students need monitoring begin tracking from day one attendance rates as well as missing assignment rates. These early interventions go a long way in preventing students from falling into a path for academic failure.

Homework, homework, homework
When many of us field calls from concerned parents, at the core of much of the academic failure is the inability or lack of effort students show with homework assignments. The problem is compounded by teachers who dictate individual policies that award no credit for late or missing work. Take a look at your own failure lists and see how many of those students currently failing a class are failing because of missing or late work. Don't be surprised if that number is over 95%. So what can we do? What strategies can we use to increase the rate of homework?

Every school hopefully engages in dialogue over the meaning of homework. Teachers utilizing best practice are not assigning mountains of busy work in which they have no intention of grading. If homework assignments are engaging and authentic, the rate of compliance goes drastically up. Presuming this is already the case (I know this is a big presumption) what can we do? We know our teachers hound and our counselors sit these young people down and explain what will happen if this continues. Does this work? Does the rate of homework compliance go up after these meetings or is it more of the same? Odds are these students have heard the same speech over and over to no avail.

One interesting strategy involves setting concrete goals for homework compliance rate and to couple that goal with a parent contract. As Catholics, we believe parents are the primary educator of their child. One effective strategy we've seen is for an academic counselor to sit down with a family and students and enter into the following type of agreement. Mom and dad agree to suspend driving and phone privileges until student x's homework compliance rate climbs from 50% to 95%. Once the rate is maintained for a few weeks privileges are restored. Yes, this is not a pleasant experience for student x, but if we are serious about helping this student achieve it can be very powerful.

Attendance, attendance, attendance
Ever deal with that handful of students whose parents seem to chronically call their child in absent. The family claims to value education and appreciate school but for some reason little Susie can only make it three out of five days. Every situation is unique and some students do legitimately struggle with serious emotional or physical health conditions that limit their ability to attend daily. On the other hand we all can probably name those students right now that do not fit this bill. An effective strategy can be to keep open the possibility of attendance contracts if student attendance falls below a predetermined rate. Monitor attendance monthly with an attendance committee. Once again, if a student demonstrates a problem, the school can partner with the family to come up with a creative incentive-based contract to help with compliance. Leaving the door open to student specific interventions can be a powerful tool. The star baseball player that can't seem to make it to school in the Fall is highly motivated when ineligibility for baseball is a reality. The senior with a lenient parent who wants to enjoy the nice weather will not look kindly upon missing prom.

The other game is the reward game. Students with a great attendance rate receive certain benefits like being waived from finals or being granted open lunch privileges or other such increased freedoms. Every school is unique and every school has its own set of issues with their chronically absent students. The one sure thing is that doing nothing will not bring different results.

Too Little Too Late
So what do you do if it's April and a junior named Billy is academically failing four classes? More of the same probably isn't going to work. Maybe the student will pull it out in the end. Maybe a sappy teacher or two will reach into their heart and pull out the old miracle mercy pass. But then again maybe not. Some schools have had good results with the "slash and capture" strategy. This involves dropping the class the student is least likely to pass to provide a supervised study period where the student can focus daily on making up missing work. If a student is carrying a 50% in junior spanish and can't make it why prolong the agony? Withdraw pass and put them in an environment where they can be successful.

A similar strategy is "homework amnesty days". I'm not too big on this one personally because it has to be a surprise to be effective and should be practiced on a student by student basis. It works by a students various teachers agreeing to give credit for all late work if it is turned in on a set date. Mom, dad, and student are made aware of the deal and the ball is in their court. Works for many a student.

Using Data to Assess Effectiveness
The best way to know if what you are doing is working is to use data. After the intervention is in place does the rate of absenteeism go down? Does homework compliance increase? Do grades rise? You can only tell if you measure the baseline date first. If the intervention isn't working it's time to try something more drastic.

The Big Shift
Most of these interventions are a shift in thinking from teaching focused models to a focus on student learning. Teachers need to accept the premise that they are there to facilitate student learning not create automatic systems that are easy for them. How many teachers who refuse to accept late work or provide some type of penalty do so because it is easier for them? How many of these same teachers would appreciate the administrator who refuses to sign an employment agreement with them for the next school year because they turn it in two minutes too late. It would be a fun game to play. Most of us want to be treated in a reasonable way. Our students deserve the same.

The movie below is a classic that explains the dilemma we all face. I'm not sure who I side with but I love the dialogue. I think you'll recognize it.

Pictures from Flickr and Flickr.


Joy Allen said...

Interesting article. Good to see focus on the positives of what we can do to focus on student learning rather than punishments.
Another area we could put more time and energy in is that of parent help and support. Short simple notes home with strategies of how to gain control and be effective can help. Short lunch hour (free food) seminars/discussions can be useful. I have offered these and simply give some tools on how to be a proactive parent. We talk about starting to know and believe in the power we have as parents. I use the effective tool of removing all power links-phone, computer, tv, car, dvd player, cell gadgets, etc. Unplug everything and have our kids earn an hour time back showing us homework, improved grades, improved attendance, etc. Many parents only hear from their own children and do not fully realize the power they actually do have. A little help, detailed guidelines and encouragement may be just what a few parents need. If you offer the "Join us for lunch parenting hour" some parents may receive the confidence and tools they need to reinforce all those good things we are looking for.
The point is to keep looking for positive techniques to use with our students AND to give positive and specific tools to parents. Help them hear from others and to know that what they may hear from their student(s) may not be the only path.
Parents are receptive to help...maybe not all, but quite a few will welcome your input.

Joy Allen
Bloomington Central Catholic High School, Bloomington, Illinois

Charlie A. Roy said...

Great comment. I like the idea of trying to reinforce and empower out parents to use their God-given positions to help influence their children. I deal with a number of parents who are able to do this and success usually follow in terms of fixing academic problems. I often see a defeatist attitude from many parents in that they don't know what else to do. I'll be recommending many of the things you mention.

Charlie A. Roy
Peoria Notre Dame High School
Peoria, Illinois

Mathew said...

I like your proactive approach to intervention.

I do, however, think teachers at elementary schools I've worked at rely too much on homework from students who do not have parental support to complete homework. While we are trying to teach responsibility, the same students never do homework and it's really sad when teachers essentially give up on those students because of it.

Charlie A. Roy said...

It's funny how most teachers will say they assign homework to reinforce the lesson and then to provide a buffer for poor test scores. Of course when it acts as noose that is about to strangle all hope out of passing it is no longer viewed in such benign terms but rather as an exercise in responsibility.

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