• By Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2009

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealDuring a tutoring session with my grandson working on his algebra homework and being cognizant of the consequences if he failed to turn it in, I was struck by the appropriateness of using mathematical symbols of inequalities to title this article. The purpose of this article is to focus on the academic support services that help to level the playing field so that all students graduate, are college ready, and are equipped to exercise their option to continue their education at a college or university.

Let’s start with two premises that define today’s high schools: (1) all high schools must consider themselves college preparatory schools, and (2) all high schools are vehicles through which equity is achieved as demonstrated by high student achievement, high college readiness standards and no achievement gaps among various student groups.

Thus, the two major questions facing today’s high schools are: (1) Do we need to increase the focus of our school as a student-caring and compassionate institution that is willing to do more to ensure that a higher percentage of students from the different student groups succeed and are college ready? and (2) Do we provide the necessary opportunities for all students to develop their academic readiness for college?

This article particularly addresses those schools that answer “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second one. And it may provide some useful insights for those schools that have shown consistently high academic performance of all student groups and a high percentage of these students enrolling and successfully completing a college education.

Two major challenges face the educator who is designing a student support services program. The first challenge is the dismal and high student attrition rates that range, in Texas for example, from 17 for White students to 42 percent for Hispanic students (Johnson, 2009).

The second challenge is to design a program of student support services amidst policies that are exclusionary, such as zero tolerance policies, both for serious disciplinary offenses and for assigning grades that disproportionately and negatively impact minority student. These policies and the execution of these policies using punitive and educationally unsound practices have led to high achievement gaps among student groups and high dropout rates among minority students.

Much has been written about the negative impact on students and the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance in meeting its original intention.

And schools that ensure instructional quality and access to all student groups and that employ instructional strategies that develop higher order thinking skills provide the necessary ingredients to student success for all [Equity + Instructional Quality + Student Achievement ≥ College Prep].

In essence, zero tolerance has become the “justifiable” tool that many schools use to address and redress unacceptable student behavior through expulsions. To make the effect permanent, schools have introduced a double whammy approach by employing zero tolerance in grading practices so that when a student comes back, he or she is never able catch up. These students have struggled throughout their school life and now are faced with an even more de-personalized system of instruction.

Zero tolerance in grading practices is a yardstick with zero as the value for defining student expectations. It is an example of a school’s low expectations that are totally unacceptable (Breaux & Whitaker, 2006).

Frequent assessments are given to students. When they do poorly on an assessment, they are given multiple opportunities to succeed. They are not failures; they just need more time to reach the level of success. Student learning is the goal, not student grading.”

In spite of the research (Guskey, 2001; Marzano, 2006; O’Connor, 2009; Reeves, nd) that suggests zero tolerance in grading practices is both unsound and ineffective, many high schools continue to use it as a banner to demonstrate its “fitness” as a college preparatory school.

In summary the student who most suffers the consequences of zero tolerance is the one who has been suspended and comes back to school to be faced with the consequences of zero tolerance grading system where the student will turn in missed work with some relief, even though the highest grade he or she can make on a missed assignment is a 60. The Civil Rights Project aptly states that these students “fall irretrievably behind, and there is a moderate to strong indication that they will eventually drop out of school” (2000).

The American Psychological Association (Skiba, et al., 2006) considered evidence for the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance and cites the incongruence of research on adolescents’ immaturity and actions inherent on a zero tolerance policy. Adolescents’ immaturity can be defined “in at least four areas: poor resistance to peer influence, attitudes toward and perception of risk, future orientation, and impulse control” (APA, 2006). Furthermore, the report stresses that secondary schools are “at odds with the developmental challenges of adolescence, which include the need for close peer relationships, autonomy, support from adults other than one’s parents, identity negotiation, and academic self-efficacy.” Any program of support services must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the development of adolescents. For student support services to have maximum impact on students, they must be shored up by equitable school policies that seek to be inclusive and student friendly.

A program of student support services in a high school campus covers a wide variety of activities ranging from crisis intervention to health services. For purposes of this article, academic student support services refer to those curricular/extracurricular, instructional, and personal development services that increase students’ readiness for college. For schools planning to enhance their services in this area, it is important to make note that research shows that success of these services will be greatly enhanced when student feedback (voices disaggregated by student group) is factored into the design of these services. It is imperative that, in the selection or configuration of services, student input be acquired either through surveys or student participation in task or planning committees. Furthermore, making and ensuring that these services are accessible to all students maximizes the impact of these activities on a school’s success.

Below is a description of two selected activities designed to offset the effects of zero tolerance and, furthermore, that schools can implement to facilitate the preparation of all students to be college ready when they graduate.

Successful Schools Implement a Freshman Academy. Research shows that freshmen face transition challenges, and high schools must provide personalized services to help freshmen address these challenges successfully (Kennelly & Mondrad, 2002). Research also shows that the vast majority of dropouts occur at this juncture and that recovery projections are low and alarming (Reents, 2002). This course combines “study skills, personal goal-setting and social group skills designed to prepare students more broadly for the demands of high school.” Personalization of services for freshmen becomes essential for a successful high school. Particular emphasis is made to ensure that minority students, English language learners, and other student groups who tend to get lost in the shuffle participate in these interventions. For example, hold a freshmen seminar that is conducted bilingually for those who are beginning to learn the English language.

Teachers Contextualize a Study Skills Approach Within Content Pedagogy. In addition to providing a college preparatory curriculum, college prep high schools expect students to prepare for college by requiring, not teaching, a set of study skills. Students who, over time, have acquired these study skills (mainly responsibility, as demonstrated by completed homework on time) through unknown haphazard methods stand a better chance to take advantage of an educational system that has distanced itself from considering grades a reflection of what a student has learned and can do with the knowledge learned. Grades have been contaminated, or should I say compromised, to ensure that the student who has not mastered the content but shows responsibility as defined by turning in homework on time can succeed or rather get a passing grade in school. This can be penalizing for a student who has mastered content but has failed to turn in homework assignments. For recent immigrants who do not speak English and have mastered content, participation in class becomes difficult when all instruction is in English. Consequently, their participation affects the assigned grade.

There is no question that being responsible is necessary for being successful in college. There also is no question that in extenuating circumstances involving disruptive behaviors that threaten the safety of students and educators, some form of discipline practices must be instituted. Nevertheless, the challenge of today’s high schools is to find ways of reaching more students in more compassionate ways, teaching responsibility among the many other study skills within the required curriculum, and eliminating achievement gaps among student groups.

We as educators must reflect and act accordingly on the following truths: (a) academically engaged students are less prone to engage in disruptive behavior; (b) teachers who are trained in managing conflict will divert emerging disruptive behavior and will be more successful with students; and (c) teachers who teach responsibility experience greater student participation and are more successful in class.

In summary, there are three questions for educators to reflect on and study: (1) Is the zero tolerance policy working at your campus? (2) Are students who received zeros on missed assignments now turning in subsequent assignments and learning? (3) Have alternatives to zero tolerance been tried that are more positive rather than devastatingly punitive?


Breaux, A.L., and T. Whitaker. Seven Simple Secrets: What the Best Teachers Know and Do (Larchmont, N.Y.: Eye on Education, Inc., 2006).

Civil Rights Project. Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies, report from a National Summit on Zero Tolerance [Proceedings] (Washington, D.C.: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Advancement Project, June 15-16, 2000).

Guskey, T.R. “Helping Standards Make the Grade,” Educational Leadership (2001).

Johnson, R.L. “Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2008-09 – Overall Attrition Rate Declines, But Gaps Persist Among Racial and Ethnic Groups,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2009).

Marzano, R. Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum, 2006).

O’Connor, K.B. How to Grade for Learning, K-12 (Thousand Oaks,Calif.: Corwin Press, May 2009).

Reents, J.N. “Isolating 9th Graders: Separate Schools Ease the Academic and Social Transition for High-School Bound Students,” The School Administrator (March 2002).

Reeves, D. Accountability in Action: A Summary of the Work Developed by Douglas Reeves, Part I: 90/90/90 Schools, MiddleWeb web page (no date).

Skiba, R., and C.R. Reynolds, S. Graham, P. Sheras, J. Close Conoley, E. Garcia-Vazquez. Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, August 9, 2006).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is director of IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2009 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.]