Lunch With Teachers A Simple Way To Improve Student Performance

Communities across the nation are searching for an answer to the same question: How do we improve the academic performance and behavior of our public school students?  Nationally many ideas are on the table ranging from the relatively mundane, such as requiring that students learn formal note-taking skills, to the more esoteric, such as re-titling teachers as “educational facilitators”.  Some ideas cost pennies; some cost many thousands of pennies.  However, all ideas, whatever they may be, have one thing in common: an increasingly desperate search for something that will work in these times of desperately decreasing school budgets.  How about considering a suggestion that won’t cost a penny, takes advantage of something all of us do anyway, is firmly grounded both in educational research and pure common sense, and offers the opportunity to improve both academic performance and classroom behavior?

Here it is: Let’s encourage teachers to eat in the school cafeteria with their students as many days of the week as possible.  We already see the benefits of the mentoring that takes place through extra-curricular activities, but not all students and teachers participate in sports or club activities.  Therefore, why not bring more teachers and more students together during the one unstructured time slot in a very structured day to share and grow from one another’s thoughts and insights?

There are, of course, a variety of reasons that teachers gravitate toward the Faculty Lounge at lunchtime.  For some it is a chance to bond with colleagues; for others it is an opportunity to squeeze in some more work time between bites; for more than a few it is a welcome moment of quiet in a busy work day.

However, research has consistently shown the advantages of positive student-teacher relationships in terms of promoting improved student outcomes.  Also, it doesn’t require a PhD in Educational Psychology to realize that students will work harder and behave better if they like and respect their teachers.  Indeed, this is a finding that cuts across professional boundaries: police officers who build relationships with the communities they serve are better able to fight crime, doctors who spend the time to get to know their patients are better able to treat them, and politicians who regularly and informally meet their constituents better understand their needs.

Why then, should we not encourage students and teachers to share a meal during the middle of the school day?

I am not, by the way, suggesting that teachers should be required to eat lunch in the school cafeteria each day: sometimes a sojourn to the isolation afforded by the Faculty Lounge is much needed; likewise, I am equally resolute that it should be entirely up to students whether to join in at a table with their teachers.  Everybody may need their own space on a particular day for any variety of perfectly understandable reasons.  Moreover, teachers should be encouraged to eat with their students—not required by a contractual clause.  No one is going to reap any rewards if we turn lunchtime into yet another duty to check off—or activity to be evaluated by administration—in the midst a busy day.  Individual choice must be respected.

Nonetheless, promoting friendly and informal interaction between teachers and students that does not involve a grade for anyone is well worth the little effort it would involve.  If the cafeteria is simply too noisy for some, we could also encourage teachers to invite students to take their lunch trays up to their classrooms for some quiet and mutually enjoyable conversation.  I well remember my own English teacher my senior year of high school and his magical classroom coffee pot during the lunch hour.  A group of us went up to his room at least once a week to drink his cinnamon-scented brew and talk about whatever was on our minds.  I’m certain none of us was harmed in any way by the experience; in fact, I’m darned sure that all of us—teacher and students alike—learned a great deal from the conversation that took place between sips of coffee.

Mark this down as an uncomplicated suggestion that may offer comprehensive benefits and won’t cost a thin dime or additional minute of anyone’s time—a pretty good endorsement for any idea to improve the quality of our schools.

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At-Risk Students Benefit When Teachers Remember The “3 R’s”

Challenging.  Difficult.  Frustrating.  I’ve heard teachers use these words—and some a bit less kind—to describe students who are chronic academic underachievers and classroom management problems.  All schools deal with students who seem to never engage fully with the classroom or the teacher, and special education classes and alternative academic programs are continually designed and re-designed in a quest to help them succeed.  To be entirely truthful, it can be somewhat of a difficult and frustrating challenge to teach students who grow more disengaged from the classroom with each year they are—if we are lucky and determined—in attendance in our public schools.  However, most experienced and thoughtful teachers would agree that the curriculum offered to at-risk students matters less than the nature of the classroom experience we provide for them.  Given that these students are often at the precipice of absenting their minds—if not their bodies—from school, any successful teacher needs to focus on employing the “3 R’s” while working with our at-risk school population.

The first R is a simple one: Routine.  All students do well when classroom instruction runs along a predictable path, but students who are dealing with cognitive, emotional, and physical problems that impede their academic progress need the routine even more than most.  If classroom instruction is designed so that each day of the week sticks to certain activities and themes, it helps students to more easily transition into a learning mode, and this is of particular importance to those students for whom that transition when the bell rings is a major hurdle.  If students have to spend too much time trying to figure out what is expected on a particular day, the chances are that the lowest achievers are going to be the first to check out of the day’s lesson and find ways to entertain themselves that will run counter to a classroom environment conducive to learning for all.  How many times has a student been sent to an administrator after misbehaving in class for no reason other than they felt frustrated about being left behind by the unpredictability of that day’s instruction?  Creativity is good when it comes to lesson planning, but it must also keep within a structure that will not send the most vulnerable students spinning out of orbit.

The second R—Reminders—sometimes seems less obvious.  While the typical student is developing the ability to stay on task and meet deadlines with each passing school year, certain students simply do not.  For a variety of reasons—chaotic home lives, undiagnosed mental or physical problems, unresolved anger, emotional fragility, or some witch’s brew of these and a host of other difficulties—too many students have a much harder time than their peers keeping focused on the lessons in front of their noses.  It is not, with rare exceptions, because these students wish to be either disruptive or disengaged.  The plain fact of the matter is that they are as easily distracted as puppies on the first warm day in the spring.  This is where reminders delivered by a teacher who is moving purposefully around the classroom play a key role in helping at-risk students to succeed.  Sometimes even a glance is more than enough to help that student refocus on their schoolwork.  Of course, it is also occasionally important to remove distractions—often in the form of classmates who are likewise unfocused and looking for something or someone with which to engage—but a manner that is supportive and not the least confrontational or judgmental is critical to keeping everyone moving forward.  If the teacher stops everything to have a protracted war of words with one student, it is going to unsettle every student in the room and completely destroy the focus of the most vulnerable learners in the class.

So what is the last R?  It is the one that every student needs every moment of every day, but is too often denied to students who are having a problem with managing themselves in the classroom—Respect.  As paradoxical as it might seem to some, our most disrespectful students are the ones who need to be handled in the most respectful manner.   Not only is important for the teacher to model the behavior we expect from students, but it is also just as vital to remember that bad behavior is often a by-product of surprisingly poor self-esteem and a painful fear of humiliation.  If educators fail to make sure the most troublesome—and troubled—students are treated with courtesy regardless of the circumstances at hand, we will can only expect less effort in the classroom and more problems overall.

Tying Teacher Pay To Student Performance Can Benefit All

Based on comments from the United States Secretary of Education and many of our state governors, tying teacher pay to student academic outcomes will be a high priority during the next several years.  Certainly, the effort carries a common sense weight that makes it hard to disagree with the idea: Why should we not, after all, pay our best teachers more for the good work they do helping students to succeed academically?  However, like most common sense ideas, there is an aspect of the “devil in the details” regarding implementation because we do not—in our zeal to help our students and reward excellent teachers—want to inadvertently create a system that harms both, and teachers and their unions generally point to two problems that must be resolved for the system to work properly.

The first objection to tying teacher pay to student academic outcomes is a simple one: Should teachers be paid less because they are teaching students with academic difficulties who may perform more poorly than their peers?  Moreover, will this cause teachers to shun districts with historically low academic achievement, further exacerbating problems with bringing top talent onto these schools’ faculties?   Even worse, will a system of tying teacher pay to student outcomes provide any unwanted incentive for teachers or schools to “push out” academically-challenged students by somehow encouraging transfers to “someone else’s” classroom or district?

Also, given that standardized tests are not administered each school year, the basic question of what measures go into assessing year-to-year student outcomes becomes of paramount importance for any incentive pay system.  Should it be based on student grades, local assessments of some sort, committee evaluations, standardized test data, some combination of all—or an entirely new measurement yet to be developed?  Just getting all parties to agree how to measure a student’s progress from one year to the next could be a deal breaker or delay implementation for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, recognizing both concerns are legitimate, it may be easy enough to address them by deftly reversing the equation: rather than tying payments to future academic improvements, perhaps it would be infinitely more simple and effective to tie incentive pay to past student performance.

First off, let’s agree that we want to avoid reinventing the wheel by creating a burdensome parallel system of student evaluation that will likely turn into a protracted argument between teacher unions, local boards of education, state legislators, and federal bureaucrats.  If we are sincere about rewarding out best teachers, nothing could more quickly kill the idea, and we will be left stranded with the current system—which amounts to the worst classroom teachers receiving exactly the same pay as our best.

Let’s instead look to the standardized tests that are already administered as part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for our benchmark and solution.  It is fairly simple, from a data analytic standpoint, to develop a composite score of a teacher’s pupil roster that will provide a clear snapshot of group academic achievement.  With this information in hand, we can set a benchmark number from which to manage the pay incentive system.  Using the composite score data as a guide, we can generate a bonus payment based on how far that teacher’s combined pupil roster fell below the benchmark on their last round of tests.  In fact, if we want to encourage more of our excellent teachers to work with our most at-risk students, we can easily tweak the benchmark for the composite score to make it easier for teachers who work with at-risk students to earn bonus payments.

In terms of a long range assessment, when the next round of standardized tests is administered, it should be fairly simple at that point to track student progress for each teacher based on the same composite test scores generated to guide the initial bonus payments, allowing us to identify which teachers did the best work at helping their students to improve.  Whether this information is used to generate additional bonus payments to teachers based out outcome data, guide future classroom assignments, or a combination of the two, it will allow the system to be further refined for the benefit of our students.

Is this a perfect system?  No, it is not for the simple reason there is no perfect system—every incentive pay structure for teachers involves some give and take from all involved.  However, if we want something with which we can hit the ground running today that will not involve anything more than some additional analysis of existing data sets and has the potential for quickly putting more of our best teachers in the classroom with the students who most need them, it may be worth careful consideration as we move forward.  Certainly, the pressure is there—not only from the Department of Education and state governors but also from our communities—to find a way to reward our best teachers for the work they do helping our children to secure the brightest possible futures for themselves and our nation.

Favoritism in Schools Hurts At All Grade Levels

All those concerned with higher education in Illinois have been following the “Admissions-Gate” investigation with great interest.  We are, quite naturally, appalled that unqualified candidates for admission to the undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs gained entrance to our public university through the unwarranted influence of politicians, trustees, and administrators.  We can all be thankful that public hearings devoted to this matter will certainly result in much needed reforms.  Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that well-connected, affluent students too often receive all sorts of breaks up and down the educational ladder.  In higher education, this advantage manifests in preferences regarding admission; in the K-12 years, this advantage shows up in more subtle ways that, nonetheless, cause significant harm to the educations of our at-risk students.

Regarding favoritism at the primary and secondary school levels, one must point out right at the start that this problem does not come about because the adults in charge want to harm our children—educators work in education precisely because they want to see their students succeed.  However, the question of what is help and what is unwarranted advantage is important to consider.

For example, most would agree that it is perfectly right and proper for a high school teacher to write a glowing college recommendation for an excellent and hardworking student.  However, what should one do about the parent who complains to an administrator that a letter of recommendation is not quite glowing enough, particularly if the parent has some pull with the local Board of Education?

What happens if a group of middle school students misbehaves in class—perhaps more than once?  Should the teacher or administrator give the same punishment to all, or should we take the “overall citizenship” of individual students into account?  Should the “good” child receive a lesser punishment than the “bad” one for exactly the same offense?

If there is a slot available in an academic enrichment program in a elementary school, should the slot be given to the student whose mother is Vice President of the PTSA or the student whose mother, except on the night of the Open House, has never set foot in the school building because she works two jobs?  More to the point, which child is, given what we know about human nature and schoolhouse politics, more likely to receive the coveted placement?

It is, of course, a matter of fact that parents will typically angle for whatever advantage they can garner for their children—it would be exceedingly odd if they did not—and we likewise want to offer rewards for hard work and achievement.  However, there are two significant problems with allowing these factors to play out unchecked.  First of all, it is a plain fact that parents of a higher socio-economic status are generally going to be the ones sitting on the schoolhouse steps every day advocating for their child; they understand how the system of academic and social honors operates and have the time and casual affluence to work it to their child’s full advantage.  In addition, when it comes to academic achievement, it is a truism that good grades and academic honors tend to operate like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill.  The students who find a way to perform well early tend to keep performing at a high level throughout their years in public school—and the low performers keep getting shunted into remedial classes that offer no chance to ever catch up and get back on track.

Fairness aside, the manner in which schools typically ladle out advantage and disadvantage based on parental pull and early (and often inaccurate) assessments of a child’s potential significantly de-motivates students who are not part of the “in group” and perpetuates a cycle of poor achievement for a significant segment of students.  If you do not believe that at-risk children and adolescents are keenly aware of the casual injustices around them, take the time to ask.  You may be surprised by just how aware they are of their “out group” status and how it influences their interest and effort.

The simple and direct solution is, of course, for teachers and administrators to make a special effort to teach—and treat—all students alike.  However, there is nothing simple and direct when it comes to stamping out a climate of favoritism—just ask the administrators at the University of Illinois if you have any doubts.  Nonetheless, school board members, administrators, and teachers must re-think the culture in which they operate in order to allow every child in our public schools the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.  Although pulling strings to help a “good” kid may seem benign on its face, the flip side is that a much larger group of children and adolescents is frozen out by these efforts.  If we want to see achievement across the board, we must commit ourselves to cherishing and nurturing every single student with the same fervor.  Failing this, we will see a cohort of our students continue to fall behind due to factors that are beyond their control because they simply have less access to the millions of small breaks other students take for granted.

Standardized Tests Tell Us That Improvements Are Needed Now

When I ran into a couple of my former high school students recently, they complained to me about the extraordinary number of test preparation exercises they were required to complete during their junior year to prepare them for that year’s standardized tests, tests which would be used to determine if the high school had made mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  It seemed that test preparation had been the dominant component of their English curriculum, while many other classroom activities—such as reading literature of consequence and refining their higher order writing skills—had gone by the wayside.  For them, the junior year of high school English was a boring expanse of timed practice tests—one after another after another—focusing on skills that they should have learned years before.

However, before anyone points a finger and complains that the No Child Left Behind legislation forces schools to “teach to the test”, allow me to offer another thought: the unfortunate experience of my former students points to a problem with our school curriculum as a whole leading to the junior year of high school—not the concept of standardized testing.  If our schools have to engage in panicky last-chance remediation serving to barely boost students over the bar, it points out a flaw in our expectations in the years leading up to the junior year testing.  Why should so much test preparation be necessary if the English curriculum features consistently high expectations for reading and writing from kindergarten onwards for all students?  Is AYP such a difficult standard to meet that our students should find it difficult to achieve proficiency if they are pushed to excel throughout their years of public schooling?

Think about it.  Is it so unreasonable to expect our high school juniors to be able to correctly use the objective and subjective cases of pronouns, punctuate compound sentences, recognize and use some complex vocabulary, understand paragraphing, and read an unfamiliar passage and answer questions about the content?  Doing these tasks well should not require intensive make-up work during the junior year in high school.  Right from the start, our public schools must teach and reinforce these basic English language skills.

Anyone who has ever taught will agree that standardized testing cannot measure all the learning that goes on in a school year.  However, it can—and does—provide a useful yardstick for determining whether our schools have transferred the most basic skills of a literate society to a new generation.  Without the gut check that standardized tests provide, we are blind to failings in curriculum and teaching that will only become apparent well after the diploma has been conferred.  Standardized testing is a tool, albeit one with limits, that allows the public to take a hard look at the results generated by their tax dollars.

“Good enough” is simply not good enough anymore.  We have to press our schools and our students to step up their efforts and outcomes if we are to be able to justify the massive costs of our public schools.  We have been waiting for significant progress in our public schools ever since the U.S. Department of Education issued “A Nation at Risk” back in 1983.   The time for future improvements is today.  We have waited too long already.

The problems our schools have with achieving a measure of success as basic as AYP are less a symptom of flawed tests and more the result of a pervasive culture of low expectations for our most at-risk students, many of whom are shunted into classes that are designed to monitor them instead of teach them.  The one-third of Illinois public schools sporting Academic Early Warning and Academic Watch labels (I recommend a visit to http://iirc.niu.edu to check on the status of your local schools here in Illinois) should be a wake up call for our legislators and taxpayers to kick at the schoolhouse doors and demand results instead of more excuses.  To use an instructive analogy, please consider the following: would you be pleased with a very expensive car that ran correctly only two-thirds of the time?  Why should we have a lower standard for our public schools than we would for our automobile?

Our schools—just as with our automobiles—will not work perfectly every time we call upon them, but we can expect much more than what we receive at present for our tax dollars.  If we remain mute, we are cheating both our children and our nation—neither of which is acceptable in a society that professes to value our children and the wonder they bring to our world.