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You can’t teach them if they’re not paying attention…

June 20, 2011

Yes, this is a basic statement and will likely cause several “yeah, duh” reactions, but it’s surprising how overlooked this simple truth really is.  When we read about the factors influencing education, we hear so much about curriculum – whether there should be national standards or not, should there be more emphasis on STEM, etc. Or, funding — there is a never-ending litany of schools/districts/states talking about how there isn’t enough money to do what needs to be done.  Classroom size is another oft-debated topic — our classrooms are still “over-crowded” yet on average they have been getting consistently smaller over the last 30 years.  Or how about charter schools are the better way to educate our children?

The one thing that gets VERY little attention, however, and has, frankly the biggest impact on education is student behavior. All of the above things I just mentioned are directly affected, for good or for bad, by how students conduct themselves in the classroom, yet this is virtually never addressed in any high-level discussions on how to improve education!

I know it’s a problem, both from my direct experience in the classroom as well as from discussions and feedback from teachers and administrators. Take, for example, this comment on a recent posting of mine. Steve wrote

You are right on about student behavior. It never seems to get addressed. It is a combination of helping the student act better, helping the teacher have better classroom management skills, AND setting up each individual school so the structure promotes an orderly learning environment. In the school I taught in for the last ten years we never once discussed openly how to improve these three things. You can’t do much about what kids are like when they walk in the door, but you can do a lot about what they are like when they walk out the door.

As I’ve said before, the typical reaction to poor classroom discipline is to assume the teacher needs better classroom management skills. Yet that completely overlooks whether the students have the social skills and character/emotional development that allows them to be “managed.”  We make assumptions that kids should come into school with a certain basic level of behavior and conduct knowledge, but as we find, there is no “lowest-common denominator.”  While we then like to place blame on “uninvolved, disengaged” parents who should be held accountable for their kids’ behavior, that, again is an oversimplification. Yes, it is the case that some parents aren’t doing what they should to prepare their kids for the classroom environment (and, life, as it turns out), but to say there is just one cause isn’t sufficient or fair.

As I’ve shared in my recent research paper, the negative impacts from students that are not adequately prepared to participate in the classroom environment are both broad and costly, from a financial as well as outcomes standpoint. If we consider merely teacher productivity and attrition, it’s over $100 BILLION dollars that is going out the window each year. Let’s put this in perspective: Race to the Top was just shy of $5B and has yet to prove itself in terms of improving education.  Now, if were able to return $50B back to the schools in the form of productive time and improved student time-on-task, what impact do you suppose that will have?  I can tell you: test scores will go up, discipline problems will go down, teachers will feel safer and more satisfied in their jobs, the overall image of public education will improve.

Note I said what WILL happen, not what SHOULD happen? Why do we know this? Because it’s been proven. Not just by us, but by extensive research.  For those of you who haven’t read it, there was a great article published in EducationWeek (and others) back in February that specifically addressed the positive benefits of social skills education in the classroom. But this type of curriculum is still seen as an “add-on” if it’s even on education’s radar at all.  Most of the time, it’s a “not-needed here” type of approach because, after all, when kids are being disruptive and unsettled they are just “being kids.”

Yet these kids can’t learn if they aren’t paying attention and a few unruly ones can wreck the learning for all.  Teachers who spend much of their time trying to maintain order and focus lose not only results, but interest in trying.  The schools are dinged because they can’t achieve their objectives year-after-year in spite of increasing attempts to improve things. We talk about lengthening school days or school calendar years, yet ignore that we are bleeding away 60 or more full DAYS of education in our existing school year.  We talk about eliminating recess because “that’s where the problems occur” or because we need more time to focus on math, science or reading.

But we ignore the giant pink, disruptive, unruly elephant in the middle of the classroom because it somehow doesn’t fit our model of what we need to do to “fix” education. Perhaps we DO need Superman after all to remove that elephant because trying to apply logic and reason and facts isn’t working worth a darned.  Because it’s not something Arne Duncan is talking about or the states’ legislators are considering it must just not be there.  Better toss that elephant another peanut ’cause he’s sticking around for a while yet…it’s the only way to get HIM to pay attention.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 2:58 pm

    Once again you hit the nail on the head. ~M

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