I think I can, I think I can

Teachers who believe they’re responsible for their students learning improve achievement, according to a study of first-grade teachers reported in the new Education Next.

. . . children with teachers who have a greater sense of responsibility for student outcomes learn more in reading during the 1st grade.

Laura Lofergo asked teachers if they agreed with four statements:

* I make a difference in the lives of the children I teach.
* Many of the children I teach are not capable of learning the material I am supposed to teach them.
* The level of child misbehavior (noise, horseplay, or fighting) in this school interferes with my teaching.
* Routine duties and paperwork interfere with my teaching.

Teachers of low-income students are less likely to say they’re responsible for their learning, and more likely to cite out-of-school factors as critical. The school environment encourages teachers to feel they can make a difference — or to give up.

Teachers who report that their school’s leadership is supportive of their efforts in the classroom have a much greater sense of responsibility, as do teachers in Catholic schools. Improving the quality of school leadership could also be an effective means of staffing our nation’s classrooms with responsible teachers.

TMAO writes that he knows his students are disadvantaged in many ways but believes he can make a difference.

I believe in the power of teachers and schools to overcome those inequities and the obstacles they erect. I believe that the adults who run schools have the power to create environments where students are capable of meeting (at least!) these basic requirements. This is a belief I held in college and the last four years of teaching have only served to strengthen and reinforce it. Lack of motivation, poverty, ELL status, family troubles — there is no excuse for the failure to educate kids, only poor attempts to rationalize and explain away that failure.

It’s hard to keep that faith, but it’s critical.

About Joanne


  1. Tom West says:

    Teachers of low-income students are less likely to say they’re responsible for their learning, and more likely to cite out-of-school factors as critical.

    I strongly suspect that they’re right. You can make a big difference if there’s fertile ground for sowing. You can work very hard indeed trying to grow plants on rock.

    The reality, of course, is much more blended. But it’s probably true that a well-motivated teacher might make a difference to a handful of students in a deprived neighbourhood school, and a difference to most students in a high-income school.

    It’s the magnificent teachers who can make the effort for returns that are relatively lower.

  2. Andy Freeman says:

    If we want more magnificent teachers, why shouldn’t we pay them more than we pay the less magnificent ones?

  3. Looking at the results of that study, it appears that the single most significant factor was “family background of students”. I am curious about this, having not found much of an explanation in the article, and dissatisfied with the treatment given to this finding by the author of the study. It appears that this is an opinion piece written based upon the results of a scholarly study, extrapolating findings based upon the researcher’s personal opinions.

    I have not done a study myself, so I can’t make a statement about the state of education in the entire nation. But in my experience, the single most important factor for a child’s success in school IS responsibility. Education is based on a three-way partnership between teacher, child, and parents. This forms a tripod, a solid base, upon which skills and memories and work habits are built. In an ideal world, all three sides in the partnership are committed and willing to take responsibility for the success of the partnership. If any one side withdraws its support or is weakened or absent, it becomes more difficult.

    And there are many scenarios within that framework that could happen. One is that, in the absence of a parent or parental involvement, a child and teacher form a stronger team. This can and does happen – having worked with students in foster care or who were homeless, or who simply had parents who were ill or taking care of a sick grandparent. I have also had students who came to the realization that their parents were too preoccupied or disorganized to help them effectively with schoolwork.

    Another possible scenario is that, given a child who is struggling or has experienced school failure, a teacher and parent team up to bolster the child. This is extremely common in my field of special education and often involves additional partners, such as therapists and tutors and even summer camps. When students enter my school after having experienced previous school problems, the first year tends to be an emotional one in which the child unlearns learned helplessness. Success is the best medicine for it, but the child has to be supported and pushed until enough success has built up to provide momentum for future academic achievement.

    And, as is unfortunately sometimes the case, situations arise in which a parent and child team tries to weather a year in which the teacher is not a committed partner. Many parents of special needs kids complain about how their children were doing great with an understanding and skilled teacher, only to have the next year’s teacher “not get” their child or refuse to provide the necessary accommodations.

    The real danger is when the second arm of the partnership also disengages, and only one side is left struggling to make a difference. A child fighting with both apathetic teachers and parents, a parent fighting both the school and a disengaged child, or a teacher struggling with both a dispirited child and an unavailable parent. In this situation, a partnership has to be re-established. I suppose this is where “teacher responsibility” kicks in, because in all likelihood if the teacher doesn’t try to get the child and the parents on board, no one else is going to do it.