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Supporting, the
"Forgotten Middle'


Many of today's students are what educators call "average," not distinguishing themselves academically, yet not doing poorly enough to warrant attention. One educator says these "forgotten middle" students have been ignored too long. Included: Ways to help average students succeed.

Every class has them -- the B, C, and D students who teachers know could do better, but can't seem to get motivated and are not disruptive, so they quietly fade into the background and never reach their potential. These students comprise almost 50 percent of the students in many schools, and have been named "the forgotten middle," by Mary Catherine Swanson, founder and executive director of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), an in-school academic support program for students in grades 5-12.

AVID prepares students for college eligibility and success by placing academically average students in advanced classes, and giving them the support they need to pursue more challenging courses.

Without this kind of help, many of these students simply drop out or graduate from high school and enter low-level jobs, Swanson said, costing the country a huge pool of valuable human resources. She talked with Education World about AVID's efforts to reach these students, so they have more rewarding and successful academic and personal lives.

Mary Catherine Swanson

Education World: Can you describe a typical "forgotten middle" student?

Mary Catherine Swanson: The typical student in the "forgotten middle" comes to school somewhat regularly, seldom gets into trouble, often earns "C" grades in classes that are not very rigorous, sits toward the back of the class, and doesn't raise his hand or do anything to draw attention to himself. Once the school year is over, the teacher forgets this student was ever in class.

This student sometimes fails one or two classes per year and eventually figures out he isn't going to graduate from high school, so drops out. If he doesn't fail any classes and graduates, he may go directly into the world of work in a low-paying job or to community college with little direction.

EW: Why do you think "the forgotten middle" has grown to include so many students?

Swanson: According to California's State Legislative Analyst's Office, the students in the middle comprise 45 percent of the student population within that state. These students lack direction and don't obtain the guidance to excel in school. Their parents are often undereducated or working multiple jobs and don't know how or have the time to advocate for their student within the school. The number of these students is growing because schools are handling so many demands that students who fail to distinguish themselves simply fall through the cracks of anonymity.

EW:What are some ways schools can help motivate these students?

Swanson: First of all, the students are bored in easy and repetitive curriculum. A recent study of the nation's high school seniors noted that only 25 percent of the students ever felt academically challenged. Someone within the school system needs to direct these students into rigorous curriculum and tell them that they are really very intelligent, and that if they take the right classes and work hard, they can have very bright futures. Knowing that a teacher believes they can succeed is a huge step. Then giving them the support to succeed in the academic classes is the next step, and giving them exposure to what their futures can be is another step. The most important thing for any student is to be given rigorous curriculum (they can't learn what they are never given) and it says that the school system thinks they are "smart." They must know that school system wants them to succeed.

EW: How does AVID help prepare students for more demanding work and college?

"The number of these students is growing because schools are handling so many demands that students who fail to distinguish themselves simply fall through the cracks of anonymity."

Swanson: AVID identifies students who are in the middle, who are low-income and come from families without a tradition of college attendance. We immediately ask them to set college attendance as a personal goal and fill them with experiences inside and outside the classroom that show them why this is an important goal. We make a bargain with the students that in order to get to college they must take the most rigorous curriculum to prepare themselves and that if they will work hard in these classes, we will be by their sides throughout their school careers to help them succeed.

The specific support for these students is very structured; however, we train all teachers of all academic classes to use these methods to open academic curriculum to a variety of students.

  • AVID students are required to take Cornell Notes in every academic class. They are held accountable for the notes. This means that they had to attend the class and to be alert enough to take notes.
  • For homework, the students must work with the notes and jot down questions about what they are not understanding. We work with Costa's Levels of Questions, always pushing level 3 or conceptual questions rather than mere facts or recall.
  • When they come into the AVID elective support class, they choose subject specific study groups in the areas where they need the most assistance. These collaborative groups of students under the guidance of a trained tutor (college students in AVID elective classes or peer tutors in other classes) use the Socratic method to help the students find solutions for their questions. No "answer giving" is allowed.
  • Before the students leave the class, they are required to write in their own words what they now understand and to explain their understanding to someone else in the group. If they cannot do this, the concept is taught again.

This system helps both the student and teacher to know if the student is understanding and allows for immediate intervention at the point of not understanding so that the student does not become lost and eventually fail a class. Regular classroom teachers are much more effective when using this method, and if block schedules or four-by-four schedules are in place, it is a wonderfully easy way to structure the class.

Although I discovered this manner of teaching through practice, it is based in lots of research, most particularly that of Uri Treisman.

EW: How has the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act affected students in the middle?

Swanson: NCLB focuses primarily on the lowest achieving students. Clearly, these students need interventions so that they can succeed in school, but we must not ignore the majority of the students in the middle, who with appropriate rigor and support, can become top students. Within AVID we have now proved this is possible with more than 30,000 such students in 36 states and 15 countries who have gone on to college at better than a 90 percent rate. When we know from RAND research that 90 percent of the net new jobs created in the 1990s require college education, and we know that a college graduate earns 91 percent more than a high school graduate, and when we know that other countries, particularly China and India, are producing scholars at much greater speeds than we, the importance of a college education becomes ever more critical.

I am constantly appalled that so many school systems and legislatures are lowering standards to meet the minimum requirements of NCLB and are advocating career pathways for students in rather unskilled professions in order to overcome the drop out problem. If those in the bottom of achievement were given challenging curriculum rather than the repetitive curriculum they have had for so long, and were told by the school system that they could succeed and we will support you to do that, they would quickly become students, hopefully not forgotten in the middle, who could advance to much greater achievement than many of our schools currently believe.

EW: What are the biggest obstacles to these middle students succeeding?

Swanson: Persistence is the biggest issue. It is not that they cannot succeed in the work, but that the school system and often the home and community have told them that they are not very capable, so they give up when something is difficult. What they learn in collaborative groups is that all students have difficulty with some concepts because the work is difficult, not because they are stupid. The teachers must become both "nags" and "nurturers" so that the students persist.

This e-interview with Mary Catherine Swanson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 01/11/2006
Last updated 05/28/2009