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Helping Students Succeed

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

Thai Students

My Thai Students in 2011

My Thai Students in 2011

Underachieving Students in the World Today

Many schools around the world are not doing enough to help their failing students. Instead, they are following a policy that dictates that all students in grades K-12 must pass. Sadly, students with severe deficiencies in math and language skills are graduating and entering both colleges and the labor force which must spend money to give them remedial training. This article will suggest ways that teachers and schools can help seriously underachieving students.

Who are the seriously underachieving students? Quite simply, they are students who are failing subjects because they can not get the necessary passing grade of 50 or 60. They are students who are getting a 60 when they should be getting a 75 or a higher score and working up to their ability. During my six years of teaching EFL in Thailand schools, I encountered many failing students in my classes.

How are teachers and schools dealing with the problem of badly underachieving students today? The students are all passing! If a school gets a list of failing students from a teacher, the students are first tutored for a short time and then retested with a simpler exam. If the students fail the retest, their scores are "fixed" so that everyone passes and no child gets left behind. I'm sure this policy takes place in other countries including the United States besides my observations in Thailand.

Reasons for Social Promotion Policy

In my first year of teaching in Thailand, I found this universal "passing" policy hard to accept. When I attended school in the 1950s and the early 1960s, no student was guaranteed a pass if they did not make the grade. Students would have to repeat courses the next year, go to summer school, or repeat a grade if in elementary school.

Today this social promotion policy where everyone passes is practiced in many countries not only in Thailand. Why? It has to do with making everyone feel good about himself or themselves. For political correctness, you dare not hurt anyone's feelings. Isn't that why we call old people "senior citizens" and crippled persons "handicapped"? Doesn't a "sanitation engineer" sound much better as a job than being called a garbage collector? If students are failing, we say that they "need improvement" and avoid the big, bad "F" word.

Another reason concerns money. It is a fact that private schools are businesses as well as educational organizations. They all compete in the recruitment of students. If a school were to fail a lot of its students or give them barely passing grades, the parents would undoubtedly transfer their kids to other grade-friendly schools. When this happens, the school suffers financially.

What Helps Students Succeed

Steps for Helping Students Succeed

What, then, can teachers do with failing students who are all guaranteed a pass? A teacher who doesn't care about having many failing students in his classes would probably do nothing and only gear his teaching on the passing students. Any teacher who cares about the achievement of all of his students would be well-advised to do the following:

1. Diagnose the Cause of Underachievement

Schools and teachers should insist that medical and psychological tests be used to diagnose the cause of failing students. Many students underachieve and fail for medical and psychological reasons. If a teacher suspects that a student has a severe medical, behavioral, or psychological problem, it is his or her responsibility to work together with the school in contacting the child's parents about the suspected problems. If the parents are not aware of their child's problems affecting achievement in school, the teacher must advise the parents to seek medical or psychological help for their kids. A student could be suffering from autism, dyslexia, anxiety, or schizophrenia. Perhaps the child is afflicted with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD. Maybe it is just a fact that the kid has a low IQ. The diagnosis of reasons for underachievement is especially important for teachers who work in schools where there are no special education classes.

2. Create Special Education Classes

Students with severe psychological and behavioral problems cannot function well in class with normal students. Special help and education must be given in separate classes by trained special education teachers. Unfortunately, this need is not met in many countries due to resistance from parents and financial concerns. Many parents don't want to admit that their children need special education, and many schools feel it is more cost-effective to streamline all children into the same class. Teachers must continue to lobby for special education classes in their schools.

3. Utilize Diagnostic Tests to Group Students in Classes Based on Ability

Before the beginning of school, all students should be given a diagnostic pre-test to determine what they know and their strengths and weaknesses in a subject. Based on the results of this diagnostic test, students should be grouped into classes based on their abilities. Although many parents feel this kind of "tracking" is politically incorrect and hurts a child's self-esteem, it is a wise policy because it makes it easier for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

4. Set Up Individual Tutorials with the Teacher

Badly underachieving students need individual help from the teacher. In my classes which average between 25 and 40 students, it is very hard to give this personal help during regular class periods. A good caring teacher will set aside some of his free time before, after, and during lunchtime to tutor individual students.

5. Encourage Good or Excellent Students to Tutor Failing Students

As much as a teacher may try, it will be impossible to give individual help to all students. For this reason, a teacher must persuade his better students to help the poor and failing students with their school work. I have done this in many classes and seen the gradual progress of my weaker students.

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6. Encourage Supervised Online Tutorials

There are many good and interesting online programs that a wise and creative teacher can use to give remedial instruction to small groups of failing students. If your school has the technology, a teacher can get online and interact with a group of students while they are going through a program in math, English, science, or some other subject.

7. Be Involved in the Moral Development of Students

Many students don't succeed in the classroom because they are lacking in moral virtue. Teachers must be willing to love students and show them how to love themselves and others. Compassion, honesty, hard work, and cooperation must also be taught to students.

The fate of failing students must be addressed in all classrooms. We as educators are being remiss in our duties by just ignoring the cause of the failure and passing along this problem to another teacher. We must begin helping students succeed. Hopefully, the suggestions I have made are a good start.

Helping Students Succeed in School

Helping Students Succeed

Helping Students Succeed

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on September 15, 2020:

This is an excellent critique of hurting a child's self-esteem. Didn't political correctness begin around the same time (1970) when our educational changes were implemented?

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on September 15, 2020:

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I agree that the education system today in the U.S. and Thailand where I reside now needs to be fixed. It definitely must begin in grades K-6.

Martha S. Lyon on September 15, 2020:

A final word, if I may, about self-esteem. This notion of not hurting a child's self-esteem has permeated American schools for the last 45-50 years, and it's a major source of some serious problems.

Frankly, I'm clueless as to why educators don't know this (just one of the ways college education programs are failing their students), but, once they realize that a person's self-esteem is actually born of one's self-respect, they won't continue to make all those mistakes addressing the notion that they can't hurt a student's self-esteem. A person's self-respect is developed and maintained in the obvious ways . . . by doing good, doing what's right, doing what one respects, doing what others respect, doing one's best, living according to a set of values and principles, and so on.

When a child is encouraged to do his best, is graded appropriately for mediocre work and given a chance to do a better job for a better grade, he gains some self-respect from being solely responsible for the better grade, and, from that, his self-esteem improves.

The teaching of writing needs to involve critiquing a student's paper for errors in sentence construction, punctuation, the content of the paper, and the way the content is presented. But, that critique does little to help the student unless the student is given the opportunity to rewrite the paper by implementing the necessary corrections.

If students understand that this is how it is with even the best writers and that the only way to improve is to continue writing and responding to the editing and also know they'll get a better grade for making the effort, there's no reason for them to feel "less than."

At the end of the day, they will have built some self-respect from having invested themselves in the process of doing better. When there's solid self-respect based on substantive acts and behavior, it's impossible to not have improved self-esteem.

The reason we have at least three generations, and possibly the youngest ⅛ to ¼ of Boomers, who cannot write well is because teachers didn't and won't correct their writing nor ask them to do better.

As to writing, teachers also bought into the notion that correcting writing kills imagination, so they let young students write the worst sounding stuff. Well, where does imagination come from? From play. I still remember how we'd pretend to play house during recess using the positively huge, misshapen tree trunks with holes along the back of the playground.

Before old enough to attend school, my son would tell short stories, so I honored his imagination by writing them down. There's a difference between the content of a story and how it's written down technically speaking. One's imagination can be just as easily expressed using a correctly constructed sentence. In fact, it can be better expressed if language, sentence construction, vocabulary, and punctuation are being taught.

The ill-conceived notion of handing out trophies and awards just for showing up or breathing has given us millions of adults with a poor work ethic and a pathetic sense of entitlement.

But, in my area of Upstate New York, it's now worse than I could ever have imagined. At least one group of teams in Little League Hockey are penalyzing teams that score too many points above the score of the other team. They do this by deducting points . . . I think two pts. for every point scored that increases the gap over a gap of 2 or 3 points, because they don't want players on the losing team to feel bad.

I was beside myself when I first heard about this. I can't imagine anything worse. That the adults who decided to do this don't see the damage they're doing . . . we want our kids to develop a backbone and to learn how to cope with adversity and disappointment . . . is beyond incomprehensible, not to mention very frightening. What if one of those minds ends up elected to office some day? Perish the thought.

How can these adults not see that they're teaching these kids to not be competitive? Imagine them ten years from now, playing for a college or professional team and about to swing at the puck to score. For an ever-so-fleeting split second, what happens? Hesitation because of that earlier programming that taught him or her to think about whether to score and risk losing points because of it.

And the results of the briefest hesitation?

I'm not a fan of professional sports because of their obscene salaries that no one playing with a ball or a puck deserves, but, if this nonsense is permitted to infiltrate all little league sports around the country, eventually there will be no point in having professional teams in any sport because there won't be any truly competitive players who have a thirst for winning.

Who's doing this? Members of the generations taught by the inadequate K-12 public education system in the U.S. Anyone want to suggest their ability to think isn't underdeveloped or otherwise impaired?

It's notl their fault, but, refusing to accept the reality of it and not working to improve the skills that are underdeveloped is their fault.

A long time ago I read something that fits here: "it's your parents' fault you are the way you are, but it's your fault if you stay that way."

It's not their fault they were inadequately educated to some degree or another that's probably different for everyone, but it is very much their fault and the fault of corporate America if their underdeveloped skills don't improve. Corporate America --- all business that employ Americans under a certain age --- have an obligation to adjust their in-service training accordingly or create appropriate in-service training. It should be a joint effort, but, as we all know:

"It's easy to fool people but nearly impossible to convince they've been fooled."

Martha S. Lyon on September 15, 2020:

My apologies for the uncorrected errors in my first comment. I work better with an edit feature, which all comment sections should have.

In case it isn't obvious, in the 6th paragraph, it should read "[s]ince I began using the Internet . . . about 11 years ago.

In the 7th paragraph, the sentence should read in part "if that foundation is NOT built then and built correctly . . ."

To help understand the difference between the pre- and post-1966-70 K-12 education systems in the U.S., I offer the following:

Those it wasn't known before the mid-1960s, studies show two siginificant things about early learning. That (1) children age 5 and under learn best through play, so pushing them academically is a stupid thing to do, but they're doing it anyway, and (2) the ability to learn for all children (probably 12 and under) improves the most through play, time for which is currently being taken over by homework.

Though none of that was known, the K-6 (because both 5th and 6th grade belong in elelmentary school; I can't find any research that says otherwise) curriculum in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan included the following:

phonics to teach reading; sentence diagramming to teach sentence construction with the collateral benefit of improving reading comprehension, the skill most needed for standarized tests; and traditional, normal math that teaches the adding of multi-digit numbers as a one-step process instead of a silly three-step process for three-digit numbers.

The school day did not end until about 3:25 or 3:30 and also included recess 2X/day, physical education classes, my school had a track meet every year, which might have been unusual back then; as far as I know, everyone walked to school; and . . . DRUM ROLL, PLEASE . . .

NO HOMEWORK . . . zero, nada; no heavy backpacks straining the tiny, still developing bodies of little children, no battles with parents after school, and time to play outdoors after school and after dinner, which we did endlessly.

To the best of my knowledge, that curriculum reflects, with few differences, what was going on in elementary schools around the country at the time.

That is, for all practical purposes, the system that prepared students to obtain average scores in Verbal and Math that were higher than the average scores have been since 1967-70. And those of us who took the SAT did so only because we were told we had to for college. No one gave it much thought and, as far as I know, no one . . . like absolutely no one . . . studied for it nor was tutored to prepare for it.

What better evidence is there or could be needed to prove that today's reform efforts absolutely must begin with a return to the pre-1970 basic K-6 curriculum.

Now, no one is saying that system didn't need improving or wouldn't need improving if implemented today, but it needed improving as in "tweaking." It did not need to be completely changed nor did it need to remain changed after about 11 studies showed that phonics is by far the best way to teach reading. Thankfully, schools here and there are re-implementing phonics, but they should have done that 40+ years ago.

I mean, one need only compare Phonics to the Look-Say Method and apply a little in-depth thought to the collateral benefits of phonics that one never gets from any other method to know schools should have never eliminated Phonics in the first place.

One other thought, my conversations with mothers over this past summer prove, certainly to both the parents and their children, that virtual learning does not work. In that respect, the new requirements put in place because of the coronavirus were a good thing.

It never works to tell people a particular idea is not a good one. They need to see these things for themselves. So, now everyone knows that the technology that reformers (many of whom are finanacially invested in technology) have been pracatically demanding be put in elementary school classrooms is a very bad idea. The last thing young children need is to stare at a screen alone.

It's also a bad idea to move 5th and 6th graders to middle schools. If it's okay for those 11 & 12 to be with 8th graders, why not 10 yr. olds? There's no difference between 10 & 11.

Remember . . . the people making decisions like that are the same people who thought it was a good idea to eliminate cursive writing instruction, the most ridiculous, short-sighted, ill-conceived notion to ever come down the pike. And if they had been able to move from their usual superficial thinking (courtesy of that inadequate education system of the last 45-50 yrs.) into in-depth thinking, it never would have happened.

It may also be worth noting that in grades 7-12 before around 1970, the school day was an hour longer, the grading system was harder (A-95-100, B=90-94, C=80-89, D-70-79 and F=69), and there wasn't enough free time to take those AP courses even though we were in school until 3:30 p.m. And, when we graduated from HS, most of us could write a correctly constructed sentence.

Since then, skill development and the ability to engage in refined, in-depth thinking have become worse over time and students, including many valedictorians, graduate unable to write very well, yet students are taking AP courses, being given GPAs of 4.1 and above, totally illogical with a 4.0 system, and being named among 5 or more other valedictorians (one school named 79 a few years ago) when the meaning of the term allows for only one person be so named --- a trend that totally invalidates the whole concept and the honor it's meant to convey, as there are not 5 or 79 "the-best" students in any school.

As a consequence, students graduate believing they know more than they do and are more capable than they are when, in fact, many of these students of the last 40 yrs. or so are the least capable and the least able to think of all the generations born in the U.S.

How else could an educated mind, as a grocery store employee, place a big cream pie atop three narrow-neck bottles in a paper bag as if it wouldn't tip? That's just one of the many, many examples of the inability to think and learn from new information that's exhibited by some or many members of our youngest three generations.

So, there you have it . . . for whatever it's worth. While many ideas suggested by people are valid and worthy of implementing, they won't fix the problem because there's something else more profound at work here.

Finding what that is requires recognizing that our K-12 public education system has a before and an after.

There has to be a reason that the average SAT scores dropped after a certain point in time and have never returned to those earlier levels. There has to be a reason for the strange superficial and black-white (not skin color) thinking of so many Americans, including university administrators, under a certain age since 2016 or before.

The intellectual ability of the human brain is still what it was when I was born and when my parents' and grandparents' generations were born, so that has nothing to do with the mediocre academic performance of students.

And a study in Shaker Heights, OH showed that the lower performance of black students is not due to typical poverty (homelessness may be different). Most teachers love their students and are some of the hardest working people in the workforce, so it isn't the handful of mediocre and bad teachers in every district. The standarized tests, like the SAT, have been created to be easier than they were before 1970, yet the average scores do not increase.

Last I knew, those tests are primarily about reading comprehension, as even the math includes word problems. Knowing that, what is needed, in addition to sufficient cultural knowledge, to improve scores? Which skills? Why is it that even many of those multi-valedictorians named by schools cannot write?

If it isn't the result of the changes made to K-6 education where the foundation for all the important skills is built, then what is the cause it?

Martha S. Lyon on September 15, 2020:

Before defining the problem(s) of individual students, wasted effort given the condition of America's education system, the problem with America's inadequate K-12 public education system must be defined. This is how one deals with any problem, but has anyone done it? Of the thousands of self-appointed education reformers in the U.S., has anyone besides moi even suggested doing that?

No. So, as the camera zooms in, we see the beat goes on, as it has for the last 45-50 yrs., because people are unable or unwilling to recognize that once you ask and answer the relevant questions, you'll discover that higher average SAT scores were obtained by those who received their K-12 education prior to 1966.

That's right. It's not the traditional, industrial-era, "out-of-date" system that's the problem. It's all the post-1966-1970 reforms and changes made to that system, especially in K-6, which have failed so miserably.

It's positively mind-boggling that, in all these years . . . it's now Sept., 2020 . . . no one has given the matter enough thought nor stepped away from technology long enough to ask and answer the right questions. But, then, ask yourselves who the thousands of reformers are and current educators, teachers, and administrators.

Since most baby boomers retired some time ago, many or most of those individuals were educated by the very system they're trying to fix. They not only don't know what they don't know, but they have nothing to which to compare their own education. I'll bet most, if not all, of them have not even considered the possibility that, though not their fault, they exhibit to one degree or another one or more of the adverse consequences inherent in an inadequate system.

It's impossible for millions and millions of previous students to have received the superior education I and my peers received. This means the workplace is comprised of millions and millions of adults functioning with underdeveloped skills, including various levels of underdeveloped cognition, comprehension, listening skills and language skills (speaking and writing).

I wish it weren't true, but I see it everywhere every day. Since I began using the Internet as a research tool the last 11 yrs., I've found maybe five examples of relatively error-free, good writing online. It's so embarrassing that today's writers of all the articles and essays posted online need some serious instruction in sentence construction and punctuation.

The foundation for good speaking and writing is built in grades K-6, and, quite honestly, if that foundation is built then and built correctly, it doesn't much matter what's done in the upper grades because they rarely are able to catch up.

The last thing to keep in mind is that most learning, the kind of learning that sticks with us, occurs in the years after high school. This is because once kids reach puberty, there are too many competing interests that pull them away from learning. To the extent they need good grades, they'll work toward earning them but actually learning is not necessarily part of that effort.

But, if the education in grades K-6 is not provided correctly, little later learning will take place. The summer of 2020 has been a mess in the U.S. Look closely and you'll discover that, in general, the public has lost the ability to think beyond the superficial. There are other relevant factors which would require too much space to discuss, but suffice it to say that the connection between superficial and black-white (not skin color) thinking and that inadequate education system is deep.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on August 28, 2013:

Au fait,

Thank you so much for your great insightful comments on this hub I really appreciate your praise of this article, and I especially thank you for voting it up and sharing.

C E Clark from North Texas on August 27, 2013:

I think students who have not achieved what is reasonably expected should not be promoted. No one is doing them any favors by doing so.

Studnets may feel great about passing from first to second grade when they don't deserve to. They may feel great when they walk across the stage with their bran new high school diploma when they don't deserve it and can't read it, and may even feel a little smug that they did nothing to earn it while their fellow students worked for theirs, but how great are they going to feel when they can't get a job at all?

The truth is that most employers really don't care about education either. They would rather have 10 dozen people who can't read, write, or speak correct English than one person who can do all of those things and more.

You have some great ideas for helping children succeed and if more teachers would read and use them it could make a huge difference. Most teachers have their hands tied and must do as they are told and they haven't the choice of doing anything differently. Given the awful behavior of children nowadays (just like their parent's) it's all many teachers can do to keep the children alive long enough to send them home again!

Voted up, useful, interesting, pinned to my 'Education' board and will share.

OCDKids from North Carolina on March 01, 2012:

Thank you for this excellent post. I really agree with your analysis and list of step-by-step solutions. The first step you mention is critical, we need to diagnose the cause. Without this knowledge, kids are often left with treatable, yet undiagnosed, "issues." These kids continue to under-perform scholastically, fall through the cracks and are ultimately left with a personal, lifelong disadvantage. I might also add, since the first of your steps is so important, changes must be made within the IEP (Individual Education Plan)criteria and assessments with respect to mental illness. My 12 year old has severe, debilitating OCD. I've fought with the public school system for years for "reasonable" accommodations. Because of the systems current structure, my childs illness doesn't fit within the allowable "boxes" and, therefor, does not meet the necessary criteria to receive accommodations.

Again, your article is excellent. Our entire system could be changed and our children would flourish by implementing each of your suggestions.


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