A Required, Preservice Course on Student Underachievement

Melissa Malen and Jonathan Plucker

Antonio is a smart, thoughtful, and engaging 10th-grade student. African American and Latino, he is challenged with ADHD and has passed only 1 of 6 quarters of English and 66% of his high school classes. He is tragically underachieving even though he is motivated and has great potential. Students like Antonio need innovative support that facilitates learning and achievement. And as the result of a dynamic, non-cognitive coaching intervention, Antonio has moved from underachievement to earning straight A’s, despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Although research suggests training for teachers on how to coach students to develop non-cognitive skills could have a tremendous impact on improving student underachievement, in our experience such training is largely absent from both preservice and inservice teacher education. It’s time to make underachievement the focus of a foundational course in teacher and administrator preparation programs.

In an ongoing study in which one of us is involved, Karen Rambo-Hernandez and colleagues are estimating the percent of students working below grade-level. Using adaptive assessment data from 10 states, they found preliminary evidence that 66% of Grade 5 students were working below grade level in mathematics at the start of the school year (33% two or more grade levels below). These findings represent a huge range in student performance - in an average school, fifth grade students need at least seven grade-levels of instruction - and begs the question of why so many students are underperforming their grade level peers. Many of these students, like Antonio, have the potential to perform not only at grade level but at advanced levels of achievement.

Students underachieving their potential is far too common, especially for low-income, twice exceptional, and Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. This leads to excellence gaps, those achievement gaps at advanced levels of academic success. The presence of huge excellence gaps, which by some measures have been growing over the past generation, is caused by a range of factors, including economic deprivation, discrimination due to race and class, neurodiversity, trauma, and lack of educator training on these causes and research-supported interventions to address underachievement.

The common characteristic of underachieving students is that they have academic potential that they’ve not been able to realize through no fault of their own. However, teachers are often not prepared for the bright student who, for example, turns papers in late, if at all. Rather than see this as a sign of underachievement, it is often viewed as evidence the student is not bright, placing the blame for the underachievement solely on the student. Research over the past 20 years provides ample evidence that the causes of underachievement are rarely internal only to the student.

Fortunately, this research also provides a range of empirically-supported group and individual interventions that educators can use at multiple levels (e.g., district-level, building-level, in the classroom) to help students achieve their potential. These interventions range from the district-level (e.g., universal screening for talent development) to the school-level (using local norms to identify talented students) to the classroom, providing educators with a comprehensive set of strategies for reversing underachievement.

For example, at the classroom-level, non-cognitive skills coaching is an innovation that can be offered daily in the classroom by teachers to improve underachievement. A student reflecting on underachievement recently told one of us, “I blame myself for procrastination, and I find it difficult to trust my judgement when choosing a topic for a paper. I say I’m going to finish work in a day but I can’t get started and look like I don’t care; but I am very motivated to do great work.” Instead of losing faith in the student and feeling offended that the student did not “do the work,” teachers can be trained to see this dynamic of behavior as the student being motivated to achieve but stalled by non-cognitive behaviors that impede work performance and achievement. 

In this case, a coaching approach that teachers can adopt is to ask the student what is needed, to talk the student through getting started on the assignment and to encourage persistence until it is completed. Coaching skills such as using personal approval, praise for small steps, forgiveness for late work and late starts, and academic self-identity building can be used by teachers to shape student behavior toward achievement. Taking this approach often results in keeping students engaged when they would have retreated out of guilt or embarrassment for not fulfilling promises to do work and for feeling as one student said, “overwhelmed and incompetent, and that I will disappoint my teacher who has great confidence in my ability, but I do not because I can’t finish the work.”

Research over the past 20 years has given us a good sense of the causes of underachievement, interventions to help underachieving students, and barriers to implementing these strategies. One of the biggest yet most addressable barriers is the lack of preservice teacher training on underachievement. To our knowledge, a required course on understanding and addressing underachievement does not exist in any U.S. teacher preparation program, yet such a course would be an important step toward achieving our equity goals in K-12 education. We see an underachievement course as a good vehicle for deep dives into the psychological, sociological, and multicultural facets of underachievement, helping teachers understand early in their careers that underachievement is widespread, often caused by systemic bias and discrimination, and fixable. Furthermore, this type of course could help educators distinguish between current performance level and potential, which we believe is difficult for many teachers and administrators.

An underachievement class could include training teachers to facilitate achievement by expressing empathy for student frustration and embarrassment about performance challenges, and listening to student challenges with attention and persistence to complete work. Teachers can learn basic coaching skills to build student self-esteem and understand executive function challenges that influence underachievement. Teachers can be trained to offer profuse praise and to refuse to express anger and disapproval when a student promises to finish work but does not.

Coaching and supportive responses from teachers to underachieving students, forgiveness of late work, and unconditional praise can provide struggling students with the tools they need to succeed. Teachers need a class on student underachievement so they can see it, understand why it happens, and know how to respond to it and to develop students as well as teach them.  Teachers need this class so when their students underachieve, they know what to do to transform the red flag of underachievement into achievement for both the student and teacher. 

Antonio needs someone to tell him he is a talented, intelligent, thoughtful student who has a unique voice and strong communication skills that he can use to engage and learn.  He needs to understand he is expected to achieve, not only that he is underachieving.  A shift in his identity to a “good student” is empowering him, changing his performance, and striking his academic trajectory toward educational and career success.

Melissa Malen is the owner of AxyLu Academic Coaching and Vice President of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented.  Jonathan Plucker is the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University and President of the National Association for Gifted Children.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC