Great urban teachers share a common belief: It’s their job to make sure all students achieve. A three-year research project in two urban school districts revealed one consistent theme: That assumption about the ultimate responsibility for student success is at the core of why some teachers are so much more effective than others.
Combining researchers’ classroom observations with teachers’ and students’ accounts of their instructional experiences revealed a small, distinctive group of teachers who did not accept failure. Many of the urban teachers in the study viewed poor home environments, lack of parental support or students’ lack of motivation as insurmountable obstacles to their students’ achievement.
Both those teachers who accepted responsibility for students’ success and those who did not used many of the best instructional practices–cooperative groups, checking for understanding, hands-on activities, and connecting new content to prior knowledge.
But not all students benefitted equally from these practices. Differences in academic success appeared to stem more from the teachers’ attitudes than from any instructional method. The teachers who refused to accept failure were vigilant and held students accountable for their actions. With a rich variety of instructional strategies, the most successful teachers cajoled, teased, berated and praised students to improve their achievement.
One teacher insisted that every student earn a C or better on every paper. Her students knew she would not let them off the hook and that they would have to redo their work until they earned a C. These students understood that their teacher’s refusal to accept failure actually put the responsibility for passing on them. Teachers who assumed responsibility closely monitored each student’s performance and knew each student well. Students in these classes knew their teacher cared about them and would do anything to ensure their success, including staying after school for as long as it took to help them be successful. Students appreciated this and it increased their motivation to learn.
These researchers identified two schools that, despite having larger populations of special-needs and low-income students, had the highest standardized test results within their district. Every teacher interviewed in these two schools asserted that he or she was responsible for their students’ success. They believed that although they could not alter conditions outside of school, they could affect the conditions in their classrooms. Using best practices alone was insufficient; effective teaching meant giving students no other choice but success.
“No Choice but Success,” Educational Leadership, Volume 62, Number 6, March 2005. pp. 8-12
Published in ERN April 2005 Volume 18 Number 4