It’s a dreary fall morning in a suburban Washington middle school classroom where the 6th-grade team is scattered around desks, looking at a list of students projected on the whiteboard. After a review of those who are failing, the teachers discuss those who will receive awards for their success.
“We always talk about the same kids—the behavior problems and the honor roll kids,” laments one science teacher. “I worry about all those in the middle.”
Most educators know about the students this teacher is identifying—the amorphous group in the “quiet middle” who seem to generate a lot of conversation, but not, by many accounts, enough attention or support.
“We have found that students who are not labeled above average at the upper end or below average at the lower end are lumped together into one large unit and essentially ignored,” says Stephen Farenga, a professor at Dowling College and author of The Importance of Average.
Latoira Rodgers, a counselor at Greene County Middle School in North Carolina, agrees. “Low-achieving students have reading groups, tutoring sessions, pull-out instruction, or behavioral mentoring; and high-achieving students are mentors, campus leaders, and have accelerated courses. Average students aren’t challenged enough or exposed to rigorous material.”
Despite the inherent challenges, educators are reaching these students in ways that allow them to thrive without the attention others soak up.
An Island of Competence
Some “average” students teeter on the edge, performing just well enough that they don’t qualify for extra support. “I am concerned for those just below grade level,” says Audra McPhillips, a math teacher and academic coach in West Warwick, Rhode Island. “If their needs are not addressed, the gap grows and they quickly [fall behind].”
Experienced teachers like Eileen Antalek worry that a learning problem won’t be discovered. “We see kids with hidden disabilities,” says Antalek, now an education consultant. “They just squeak by and no one notices. I have seen too many who accept being the kid in the corner everyone ignores.”
She recalls a bright student with average grades who was often criticized for lagging effort and interest, but was later diagnosed with ADHD and processing issues. Eventually, he received accommodations through a 504 plan for the attention issues (reminders, breaks, proximity to the teacher, and more tech classes where he excelled) and his teachers were more aware of his needs.
“Was he ever the classroom star? No. But he found his island of competence, and [once] his problems and strengths were recognized, his confidence soared because someone paid attention,” says Antalek. “He was brilliant with technology—and he even helped the school update and operate its computer network.”
In The Importance of Average, Farenga argues that individual needs are often not met because education policy doesn’t give average students the same opportunities as others. Instead, it bumps them along, teaching them how to score better on tests that don’t accurately assess their knowledge. Differentiation is “unquestionably the right thing to do for them,” McPhillips notes, “but it just adds another layer to the work of incredibly busy teachers.”
Angelina Arrington, a fourth-generation teacher in Los Angeles, says our education system’s overreliance on standardized test preparation diminishes good teaching that could give all students more attention.
“That middle group is so varied, and while there are students with specific problems, most of the class is in that quiet middle,” she says. The onus is on teachers, then, to separate the pack. “We have to get to know each student—their passions, their strengths, and their weaknesses.” She meets with a few students every day to do just that—often during her lunch hour—and makes a constant effort to connect with students on an individual basis.
Too Much Average
Todd Rose, author of The End of Average and director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, sees education failing most students, but talks about there being too much attention on a nonexistent average student.
Rose, himself a high school dropout who slipped through the cracks, has identified a “jagged learning style” model showing that each student has unique ability in areas such as memory, reading, vocabulary, language, curiosity, perceptual or cognitive ability, and interest.
“We are losing our brightest minds because we design education for an average student who doesn’t exist,” he says. “It fails everyone—it just fails some kids more than others, and it’s often kids whose needs are harder to spot.”
Rose is an advocate for personalized learning, which he says provides more opportunity for students in the middle, customizing their experiences and assessment, and determining their progress based on the mastery of content and not grade level or seat time. And he sees technology as one of the best ways to provide it.
Kelly Young, the director of Education Reimagined, points to online programs like Thrively, which assesses students then offers them a stream of activities specific to their interests and abilities, and LRNG, “an ecosystem of learning that combines in-school, out-of-school, employer-based, and online learning experiences” where students create “playlists” of study and receive badges as proof of mastery.
“This is about starting with the strengths, interests, aspirations, and needs of each child and developing learning pathways that [help] that child thrive,” Young says. “There won’t be a quiet middle in a school with a non-average mindset.”
Small Steps, Big Lifts
Apart from sweeping reforms or shifts to online learning, Marsha Pinto, the 20-year-old founder of SoftVoices.com, says extracurricular activities and smaller learning groups can allow less visible students to build confidence in their speaking skills. “After-school groups helped me make a name for myself and show others that I was more than just the shy girl,” she says.
Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, developed a Young Writers Club, which paired several quiet and below average students who liked to write with stronger, more outgoing writers (identified by counselors and grade-level teams). The students worked together on a school e-zine, reporting and peer editing one another’s work. The school also experimented with support classes for students who had potential to improve but didn’t need intense interventions. Teachers reviewed a list of near-average students with gaps between test scores and grades, then moved some into advanced classes (in one case, a special journalism course) and put others in twice-a-week after-school support. Most saw improvements in their grades.
A math intervention program at Deering Middle School, where McPhillips taught, brought teachers together every six weeks to discuss students who were just below grade level. The students received interventions every day on math concepts they struggled with. “That quiet middle got the lift they needed,” says McPhillips. She describes one student in the program who “always tried hard, but fell a little bit short in math.”
“Layla was often frustrated, rarely raised her hand, but never qualified for any kind of extra help because she wasn’t one of the students struggling the most.” When she had access to math intervention, “her whole demeanor changed. She was more confident personally and with her work.”
In some New York City schools, the Peer Enabled Restructured Classroom (PERC) program turns slightly below average 10th graders (who they note have a 40 percent chance of not finishing college) into Teaching Assistant Scholars (TAS). The scholars work under the guidance of a teacher to instruct small groups of younger peers (four or five 9th grade students) in restructured math and science classes. They have one period a day where they review the material and practice techniques for getting it across and one period in the classroom as the teacher.
“Middle-achieving students are placed in a leadership role where they feel responsible for success of other students and are inspired to live up to that responsibility,” says Shula Freedman, sustainability and growth coordinator for the program.
After participating, TAS students were twice as likely as their peers to meet college-readiness goals, and over time, they showed improved leadership skills. Plus, the grades for the students they worked with rose; the younger students were 1.6 times more likely to pass Common Core exams than students who didn’t participate in the program.
An Added Boost
Teacher expectations may also have an effect on even slightly below average students, according to a 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States. Teachers might assume that students who have not performed well in the past will struggle and give them less attention or subtle “cues.” The report explains: “These expectations can cause teachers to differentiate their behavior toward individual students, setting lower expectations for some students, providing briefer (or no) feedback on student errors—and less positive feedback after correct answers—and granting students less time to answer questions.” Those presumptions can shift grades as much as 10 percent and can only be changed with teacher training about such bias, the study notes.
Arrington says that’s important–teachers can’t make assumptions about this group’s ability to progress. “We need to recognize some of these students who…are ready to take off. We just need to notice them and give them a boost.”
Try these tips to help boost the grades of “average” who don’t attract much attention in your classroom.
Talk to them. Make an effort each day to communicate with or involve one or two of the quietest “average” kids in a discussion, whether it’s with you, with a peer, or during a whole-class conversation. Remind yourself to give them some individual attention with a phone app or a sticky note—it’s easy to have the best intentions but forget in a busy classroom.
Learn their story. Identify the kids in this group. Learn the ways they want to learn and show their understanding, and avoid preconceived notions about their ability or interest in learning.
Identify gaps. Keep an eye out for personal struggles, attention issues, learning disabilities, or other social emotional problems that could be largely hidden.
Tread lightly. The introverts in this group—and there may be several—may not want to be in the limelight nor seem enthusiastic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn. Sophia Dembling, author of The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, says these students may appreciate a quiet conversation with a teacher—even separate from class work—and may prefer a private spot to do their work or relax. “Introverts can keep up if they have time to step away and let their brains calm down from time to time.”
Look outward. Encourage these students to get involved in extra-curricular or special smaller, narrowly-focused academic programs where they can shine, such as a reading support class or a homework club.
Consider technology. Personalized learning may be the key to motivating students in the middle, some experts say, and online work can often provide it.
Thumbs up. Acknowledge and praise hard work, but as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests, praise effort not intelligence. It might be easy to praise less visible students routinely without considering the negative impact of empty praise.
Jim Paterson is a former school counselor who works as a freelance writer in Lewes, Delaware.