• by Adela Solís, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1999

Dr. Adela SolisSince the early 1970s, compensatory education programs have dedicated numerous resources to the education of “disadvantaged” children (minority, poor, non-native English speakers) who are considered at risk of academic failure. Despite millions in expended dollars across two decades and the availability of technical assistance to schools, the academic standing of many of these children has not significantly improved. This was made evident in several national studies (Knapp and Turnbull, 1990; U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

There are multiple reasons for the lack of success of compensatory education. One is an underlying assumption among many educators that educationally disadvantaged children are not capable of learning at high intellectual levels. While their class peers are reading intriguing materials that challenge their comprehension, at-risk children usually participate in “remedial” classes in which teachers conduct rote drills on phonics, vocabulary and word decoding that are seldom linked to mainstream classroom activities.

A second reason, not unrelated to the first, is the notion that there is a hierarchy of skills. The premise is that some skills are “basic” and must be mastered before the more “advanced” skills can be learned. Thus, mastery of basic skills can become a barrier to learning at high intellectual levels. Since the expectation of many teachers of disadvantaged students is that they cannot learn advanced skills, these skills are almost never taught.

The persistence of these negative assumptions over many years has impacted curriculum and instruction. Many materials today are still mastery-based (teaching from basic to more complex skills). Also, the majority of teachers today strongly prefer and are only prepared to use a strictly sequenced and rote teaching methodology.

Research reveals that compensatory educators tend to:

  • underestimate what minority, poor and limited-English-proficient (LEP) students are capable of doing;
  • postpone more challenging and interesting work for too long – and in some cases, forever; and
  • deprive students of a meaningful or motivating context for learning or using skills that are taught (Means, Chelemer and Knapp, 1991; Knapp and Turnbull, 1990).

Expert observers of compensatory programs report that there is a tendency in the education field to “decry the failure of disadvantaged students to demonstrate advanced skills, while failing to provide them with instruction designed to instill those skills” (Means, Chelemer and Knapp, 1991).

Disadvantaged students actually receive less instruction in higher order thinking skills than do other students, their instruction is more repetitive and their teachers tend to be very directive and break down tasks into smaller discrete pieces without knowing for sure (through proper assessment) if this rudimentary technique is necessary.

There have been observations of children’s mental processing when teachers remove tasks from their context (decontextualization) for students to learn discrete or basic skills. The results indicate that this definitely offers less opportunity for teachers to connect with the children’s personal experience or skills, which are the base for the conceptualization and problem solving that comprise higher order thinking processes (Knapp and Turnbull, 1990; Sutherland, 1992).

A number of reform efforts in the 1990s have emerged to address the low performing trend among disadvantaged students. These reform efforts are using research in cognitive psychology and linguistics to point to the intellectual potential of all students. They also encourage daring innovative approaches to instruction.

Today, a good number of models have been developed for teaching advanced skills to at-risk disadvantaged children. These models are based on innovative approaches that have worked with other students, higher order thinking models, gifted education models, and others (Ellis and Fouts, 1993; Means, Chelemer and Knapp, 1991; US Department of Education, 1997).

When schools implement such models, it has become evident that framing this change so that educators in compensatory programs can apply it requires reversing belief systems and practices that have been ingrained in the system for decades. Certain things specifically need to occur, such as (a) upgrading research knowledge to dispel old assumptions and misconceptions; (b) adjusting attitudes or dispositions about these students; and (c) restructuring the instruction within these programs.

What Critical Knowledge Should be Internalized?

Several findings from research and expert observations of schools can help to change old assumptions about disadvantaged students, the nature of their learning and corresponding pedagogy. The following are examples.

Research shows that basic skills learning is not an absolute prerequisite for learning advanced skills. Research in literacy (which can be generalized to other learning) shows quite clearly that students can acquire comprehension skills before they are good decoders of the printed word (Collier, 1995; Goodman, 1990). Students can also reason about new information, relate information from different sources, ask questions, summarize information from oral text and do other things often considered “advanced.” When educators realize what it takes to understand numbers, master a language, and categorize and recategorize objects, they appreciate the magnitude of children’s intellectual accomplishments (Kirby, 1984).

Some of the most significant barriers to intellectual development are affective in nature (e.g., low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence) and not the intellect itself. Cognitive psychology indicates that concepts do not exist in the environment itself, they are constructed by the child who interacts with that environment (Kirby, 1984).

Whether they come from poor or affluent backgrounds, children bring to school important skills and knowledge. For example, the majority of students of limited English proficiency have mastered the receptive and expressive skills of their native language. The particular language or dialect they have acquired may or may not match that of the classroom, but the intellectual challenge and consequent development is still equivalent in this case (Solís, 1993).

Most disadvantaged children have learned basic facts about quantity (e.g., the type of object – a penny or a pencil – does not change the number of those objects), they know much about social expectations (e.g., taking turns in a conversation), and they possess a lot of knowledge about the world (e.g., banks are places where you can get money to spend; not all flowers bloom in winter).

A New Attitude Toward Disadvantaged Learners

According to Means, Chelemer and Knapp, a “new attitude” toward teaching minority, poor and LEP students suggests educators should do the following (1991).

  • Appreciate intellectual accomplishments all young learners bring to school. This means overtly recognizing children’s accomplishments and getting children (and their parents) to recognize them too and, most importantly, incorporating them into the daily school activities.
  • Emphasize building on strengths rather than on remediating deficits. For example, instead of taking a deficit view of educationally disadvantaged learners, educators can focus on the knowledge, skills and abilities that children bring to school (which come from accomplishments attained before coming to school as well as during off-school hours) and use these as a basis for building stronger skills and broader knowledge and making them applicable to classroom academic exercises.
  • Learn about children’s cultures to avoid mistaking differences for deficits.

It is essential for teachers to recognize that children from low-income backgrounds who may be different culturally are no different than affluent children in how they assimilate skills and knowledge from their environment. A poor child’s decision on how to best manage a meager allowance is just as valuable a skill as an affluent child’s choice-making when purchasing a computer game. A disadvantaged child’s problem solving related to baby-sitting a younger sibling may be even more intricate than another child’s problem solving while playing on a swingset. An English as a second language student probably can defend, explain and convince someone in his or her native language as eloquently as a native English speaker can do this in English.

Another important note is that children from other cultures value education intensely. They come to school having mastered the receptive and expressive skills of their native language, and, as mentioned above, what they have acquired in their native language involved the same intellectual feat as learning it in English (Collier, 1995).

How Can the Curricula Be Revised and Restructured?

In order to encourage the teaching of advanced skills to disadvantaged students, some developers of education models advocate restructuring curriculum and instruction in a number of ways. Following are a few examples from Means, Chelemer and Knapp (1991).

1. Focus on complex, meaningful problems.

Subjects should be kept enough at a global level so that the purpose of the tasks is apparent and makes sense to students. For example, in the process of writing state government officials about guns in schools, students will acquire new vocabulary. Each word is learned in the context that gives it meaning while the students are attending to higher level skills.

This contrasts previous methods – which do not work – of breaking down academic content into small skills with the idea that each piece will be easy to acquire. By the time we break something into its smallest parts, the whole can become obscured. Children drill themselves on the spellings and definitions of long lists of words, often without really understanding the words or having any motivation for using them.

2. Embed instruction on basic skills in the context of more global tasks.

Use complex, meaningful tasks as the context for instruction on advanced and basic skills. Basic skills should be practiced within a real-world problem solving assignment. For example, teachers can have the students use addition and subtraction to figure out how many children will be having milk and how many will be having chocolate.

The advantage of this strategy is that the more global task provides motivation for acquiring all the knowledge and skills essential to its accomplishment. It is worth learning the conventions of writing if that knowledge will enable the student to communicate with a distant friend. Word decoding is more fun if the word is part of a relevant message.

Most importantly, embedding basic skills into more complex tasks means that students can practice executing the skill in conjunction with other skills. Cognitive research shows that it is possible to perform subskills of a task without being able to connect the pieces into a coherent performance. Additionally, teaching basic skills in the context of more global tasks increases the probability that those skills will transfer to real-world situations. The decontextualized academic exercises characteristic of traditional basic skills teaching is so different from what any of us encounter in everyday life. The issue of what skills to apply does not come up when skills are taught in isolation; while it is unavoidable when taught in the context of complex, global activities (Goodman, 1990).

3. Make connections with students’ out-of-school experience and culture.

Implicit in the point made above is the idea that in-school instruction will be more effective if it builds on what students have already learned out of school and if it is done in such a way that connections to situations outside of school are obvious. Examples include having students work on creating a safe environment in school based on what they know about a safe environment at home and using the student’s family’s approach to buying food or planning meals. Using students’ culturally-based ways of thinking in arriving at solutions (estimating measurements in recipes rather than using a measuring cup) makes an even tighter connection to the children’s out-of-school experience and culture.


The programs and schools that educate disadvantaged students can begin to intervene instructionally in meaningful and challenging ways and to meet the reform challenge of the 1990s. To do this, they must discard assumptions about students’ capabilities and a skills hierarchy, work to understand children’s competencies in the context of broad, relevant research knowledge, and adjust how teachers see and work with disadvantaged students. Changing attitudes about these students will create a fundamental positive change within the programs that exist to serve them.


Collier, V.P. “Acquiring Language for School,” Directions in Language Education (Washington D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1995).

Ellis, A.K. and J.T. Fouts. Research on Educational Innovations (Princeton Junction, New Jersey: Eye on Education, 1993).

Goodman, Y. (Ed.). How Children Construct Literacy (Newark, New Jersey: International Reading, 1990).

Kirby, J.R. (Ed.). Cognitive Strategies and Educational Performance (Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984).

Knapp, M.S., and B.J. Turnbull. Better Schooling for Children of Poverty: Alternatives to Conventional Wisdom. Vol. 1, Summary (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Budget and Evaluation, 1990).

Means, B., and C. Chelemer, MS Knapp. Teaching Advanced Skills to At-Risk Students: Views from Research and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991).

Solís, A. “Portfolios in Secondary ESL Classroom Assessment: Bringing It All Together,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 1993).

Sutherland, P. Cognitive Development Today (London: Paul Chapman Publishing Limited, 1992).

US Department of Education. Reinventing Chapter 1: The Current Chapter 1 Program and New Directions: Final Report to the National Assessment of the Chapter 1 Program (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, Office of Policy and Planning, 1993).

US Department of Education. Special Strategies for Educating Disadvantaged Students, final report (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service, 1997).

Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]