Academic Differences in Middle School (page 2)
All young adolescents should have the opportunity to succeed in every aspect of the middle grade program, regardless of previous achievement or the pace at which they learn.
Carnegie Foundation, 1989, p. 49
Middle grades students experience intellectual development at varying rates and to varying degrees. This variance, along with other developmental changes taking place within the context of a student’s world, contributes to academic success, or the lack of it. Stevenson (1992) cautions us against expecting all students to learn the same things in the same ways at the same rate.
Ability and Effort
Academic success is dependent on both ability and effort. In any heterogeneous middle school classroom, we may find IQ scores ranging from about 70 to 140 and beyond. In terms of effort, the variability would be just as wide. The wide variances in, and interplay between, both IQ and level of effort can lead to failure by very capable students as well as success by only marginally capable ones. Most students exhibit moderate levels of both IQ and effort. It is our responsibility as educators to attend to both ability and effort.
Effects of IQ and effort on academic success
High IQ + High Effort = Will Succeed
Low Effort + Low IQ = Will Not Succeed
High IQ + Low Effort = May or May Not Succeed
High Effort + Low IQ = May or May Not Succeed
Self-Worth Theory and Underachievement
We have explored the role that developing self-esteem plays in the lives of young adolescents. Strahan (1997) tells us that how students perceive ability and effort is a critical factor in a student’s academic self-esteem. He says that if students experience academic success, they will assign more importance to academic self-esteem. On the other hand, if students do poorly in school, they face a difficult psychological dilemma. In an attempt to preserve some measure of self-esteem, these students will discount academics. They may adopt a “school doesn’t matter” attitude. Covington (1984) says that when children are young, they see ability and effort as one and the same. If they try hard, they are successful. By middle grades, students tend to see the “smart” kids appearing not to try as hard for good grades. Assuming that if you have ability, effort isn’t important, their logic leads them to believe that if you have to try hard, you must not be very “smart.” In an attempt to avoid failure, students may appear not to try so they can get away from feeling unable. They may display lack of effort, procrastination, putting blame on others, and purposefully turning in wrong assignments. Strahan (1997) cautions us that if these behaviors are “ . . . unchecked, these failure-avoiding tactics can become self-fulfilling prophecies and make it increasingly difficult for students to succeed” (p. 37).
We can equate one of Covington’s sample behaviors, devaluation, to one of the causes of underachievement. Psychologist Sylvia Rimm (1997) tells us that when academically unsuccessful students complain that the work is boring, they may be masking feelings of inadequacy. Here’s how she defines underachievement: “Underachievement is a discrepancy between a child’s school performance and some index of the child’s ability. If children are not working to their ability in school, they are underachieving” (p. 18). Our role as educators should include recognizing when our students are not working up to their potential, and then taking appropriate action.
Academic differences exist, whether stemming from levels of ability or levels of effort. Williamson and Johnston (1998) give us an appropriate challenge when they write, “High achieving schools, where all students succeed, embrace the conversations about achievement, about rigor and challenge, about raising standards, and about serving students more appropriately. They understand the importance of achievement and unabashedly promote it as their school’s primary goal”(p. 8). Our mission is to meet students where they are in terms of ability and effort and then find ways to design/choose curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessments to move them forward.
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