Jeffrey Ricks was a bright energetic 12-year-old. 1 He liked ice cream, loved his younger brothers and sisters, bragged about his father’s exploits, 2 clowned frequently in class, and had been described by his teachers as “charming.” At the time of this study Jeffrey was a 6th-grader at Jefferson School, his fourth school in that academic year. He was also a resident of the Chalet, a homeless shelter in southern California. This chapter concerns the final weeks of Jeffrey’s 6th-grade year as he struggled with a daunting backlog of unfinished classwork and with the year’s capstone assignment: the production of a social studies research report on Turkey. By dint of great effort on his part and on the part of his teachers, Jeffrey completed his overdue assignments and his report, a not-inconsiderable accomplishment given the many constraints imposed by his home and school contexts. The work he was assigned arose from a curriculum that conformed to high standards, and it was assigned by hard-working teachers who held high expectations for their students. At the same time, there were grounds for serious concern about his academic future, because his success in completing the work did not indicate any meaningful mastery of the content and processes that constituted the essential core of the assignments. In the case of Jeffrey, the existence of high academic standards not only did not produce meaningful learning, it may even have furthered his academic disadvantages.
Although Jefferson School was located in a very poor neigborhood, Jeffrey’s teachers held their students to high standards. In addition, the school made strong, consistent efforts to provide an atmosphere in which all children could learn and to forge connections to the families that it served. Its teachers had not given up on their students; indeed, in an early meeting one of Jeffrey’s teachers told us that Jeffrey just hadn’t been at Jefferson long enough to understand that they were going to keep following up on him. Both his social studies/language arts teacher and his math/science teacher adhered to the full curriculum prescribed by the state and local guidelines. Moreover, convinced that students should not go to junior high school without having had the experience of writing a research paper, Jeffrey’s social studies/language arts teacher devoted extensive time in the second semester to guiding students through this experience—the specific assignment being to write a research report on a country other than the United States.