Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Susan Opotow

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology | Personality and Social Contexts | School Psychology | Secondary Education | Social Psychology


rural, adolescent student, underperformer, Onteora, Indie, Lewin


The aim of this thesis is to describe and analyze how changes in classroom-level conditions can help underperforming students thrive despite established school structures that discriminate against and exclude those students from learning opportunities.

Every year, millions of US public school students fail to graduate high school (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018), despite numerous ongoing education reform efforts (Berkshire & Schneider, n.d.; Strauss, 2017). A large percentage of these students attend rural schools (Arnold, Newman, Gaddy, & Dean, 2005; Status of Rural Education, 2018). The rural conditions of adolescent students adversely affect their educational performance and achievement (Howley & Howley, 2010). However, the bulk of quality education research, policy, and funding targets urban regions (Arnold, Newman, Gaddy, & Dean, 2005; Coladarci, 2007; Johnson & Strange, 2009; Sherwood, 2001).

Analyses and reforms that do extend to rural areas fail to recognize that a chronically underserved and underperforming group of students is being generated by the education structure itself. A focus on graduation rates distracts from the inequality and exclusion engendered by a hierarchical grading system backed by rewards and punishments. A school bias favors student productions that are linguistic, coherent, and conclusive, and subordinates those which are visual, creative, and ambiguous. These structural issues generate a chronic percentage of students who dislike school and regard academic knowledge as peripheral to their real lives—a situation that results in low attendance rates, skipped classes, low grades, and dropping out.

This thesis examines the everyday school lives of a group of “underperforming” rural US adolescent students in an attempt to understand how the norms of school structure affect classrooms and individual student experiences, achievement, and behavior. Concrete examples from a high school program operating in a rural New York State school district illustrate some issues and suggest means of change.

The analysis approaches the issues from particular positions: that student struggle can be addressed initially through changes in the classroom environment and teaching approaches; that privileging student inclinations and interests over hegemonic school practices and procedures best reveals the classroom situation; and that useful alternatives to revive stagnant systems can often be found through multidisciplinary explorations—in the case of this thesis, in the noneducational fields of peace and justice studies, social psychology, and aesthetics.

A fundamental proposal in this paper is that education consider all students to be capable of and interested in acquiring and applying academic knowledge to enrich their lives. My findings suggest that when student behavior and classroom situations are approached nonhierarchically and inclusively they can generate new classroom responses that positively influence all students.