I understand that the question in the title, and of course, the longer version of the question (below) is too broad and subject to being closed.

Will the low-achieving children always be there, is it their fault or the education systems fault?

Fortunately, neither of them is the question that I am directly interested in! Here is the story. I am working with a group of first year mathematics students in a course that is somehow about mathematics education. As part of their assessment, they have to write a short essay on a problem that they are personally interested in finding an answer for. One of the students came up with the question above. I realize that it is too hard for a short essay over a short time. But, I am so intrigued by the question that I've decided to find a way to help her to delimit the question and does something about it. That is why I am here, to get help to make the question approachable. To keep answers "closed to discussion" please just give the following:

The angle(s) that the question can be approached from + some good resources (papers, books, etc) related to the angle(s) you suggest

Please feel free to add tag. If I knew which tag to use for this question, I would have advised her already!

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    $\begingroup$ By low-achieving, do you mean children who perform at a lower level than they should be able to, or just generally children whose performance is some amount below average for their age group? $\endgroup$
    – user141592
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Johanna I guess your first option makes more sense, since "naturally" the second scenario will happen: in any population, whatever we measure, there are some below average! To be honest, I don't know how to think of the question though It seems very "natural" question. Interestingly, in the original version "lower group/set" had been used instead "low-achieving" and I changed it! Maybe I was wrong. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ This should be helpful: nea.org/home/12464.htm $\endgroup$
    – Jeffrey L.
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ One of the "angles" from which I might read this is: Are the students who are low-achieving [by whatever definition] early on also the low-achieving students later on? I expect, for a reasonable definition, you will find an answer of: Yes, low-achievement early on was a strong predictor of low-achievement later on. And so the more interesting question to me [and this is a question around which research exists -- though I have no expertise here!] is: What characterizes low-achievers who became high-achievers? (Separately: Check Do schools make a difference? [1977] and who cited it...) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ (The first math-ed paper that comes to [my] mind in this general area is: A "Gap-Gazing" Fetish in Mathematics Education? Problematizing Research on the Achievement Gap by Rochelle Gutiérrez...) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 10:13

2 Answers 2


I think the question is one of perspective, and that really the answer should be about changing perspective and not about trying to answer the question from the perspective suggested by the question.

To illustrate, supposed that some system is put in place to study and answer the question as asked. They might decide that students who routinely score in the bottom 10% of a number of trials are "low-achieving", and then decide to address that by remediation or by something else that is meant to improve performance in such situations. I see this as socially harmful, not just for the individuals so labeled, but for a healthy society in general. While the idea that "everyone should have a minimal competency in every subject" is worth considering, making such distinctions early and impressing them on the distinguished strikes me as a bad strategy. Instead, use it as an evaluating tool and suggest that that subject be covered later or not at all in the student's education.

I think the question is a springboard for a number of discussions practical as well as philosophical. I would like to steer it from "recognizing that this person is not good in this subject and fixing it" to "seeing certain lack of ability and channelling the student to address that by switching subjects or learning styles for that subject".

Of course, that is what teachers should be and probably are trying anyway, but in the U.S. there seems to be an emphasis on fixing the specific lack rather than working around it. We should have enough data now for knowing how to work around such things in a socially responsible and beneficial fashion.

Gerhard "Is Math Really That Important?" Paseman, 2015.10.06


Perhaps a more interesting (and specific) question would be, does schooling cause (or increase) gaps in achievement? And one way to approach that would be to look at the range of achievement (leaving out the top and bottom x%) in different countries.


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