Differentiating Control and Influence with Respect to Student Achievement

Thanks to @StevenSinger3 for his comment that “student achievement and growth are things teachers do not control. His other point is that “lawmakers need to understand this & stop trying to hold us accountable for things out of our control.”

Of course, he is correct. Teachers can no more control the achievements of their students than leaders can control the achievement of their people. What teachers can and must do, however, is influence their students. How we differentiate control and influence has much significance in addressing the challenges facing teachers and public schools.

To be able to adapt to the needs of their students, teachers must possess some level of control over the education process; empowering them to exercise discretion. This brings an important question into focus. “Does the education process exist to serve the needs of teachers and students or do teachers and kids exist to serve the process.” See my earlier post entitled: A Square Peg in the Round Hole of Public Education.”

The existing education process is rigid and un-malleable. It functions to ensure that what students are to be taught conforms to academic standards and timeframes. It is not designed to provide teachers with the flexibility they need to differentiate with respect to student needs.

We have carved out exceptions for children who have been identified as having a recognized disability and this works reasonably well. Little has been done, however, for the children whose deficiency is academic preparedness, whatever its genesis. The fact that children of color and those for whom English is not their mother tongue are disproportionately represented in the population of students with an academic preparedness deficiency has enormous adverse  consequences  for all aspects of American society.

How can we expect our teachers, unsung heroes all, to have a significant positive influence on these disadvantaged children if they cannot differentiate?  

In many schools, disadvantaged kids are the rule not the exception.  It is imperative that teachers be able to deviate from rigid structure of the education process for any student who struggles; and this is especially true during a student’s first few years of school. If we cannot get kids on a positive learning path when they are 5 and 6 years old, they are likely to have given up by the time they are fifteen and sixteen? It is incredibly difficult to remediate the learning patterns of young people who have spent as many as ten years learning that it is pointless to try.

The brains of normal newborn babies are programmed to learn. Babies soak up the world around them through their sensory apparatus. Because of their innate curiosity, kids are motivated to learn but that motivation must be sustained. When they arrive for their first day of school, we can help sustain or, if necessary, re-ignite that motivation with positive reinforcement that is most powerful if it is provided within the context of a nurturing relationship with people who care about them. Positive reinforcement from parents or other caregivers and teachers, who are both able and committed to giving kids time and attention, can be a powerful  force. It works best when the providers of that reinforcement are working in concert, as members of a team, but often, it will be left to teachers. Hence, it is imperative that teachers are given latitude.

Think of that positive reinforcement in terms of affirmation, acknowledgement, and celebration of success. Affirmation is reinforcement of an individual’s inherent value. It is letting kids know that they are important, that we like and care about them. It instills a sense of belonging. Think about how many of the students who have engaged in acts of violence against their classmates and teachers  appeared to exist on the fringes of their in-school communities; who felt no sense of belonging. That sense of being a part of a community, team, or family not only helps develop a healthy self-esteem, it helps nurture and sustain one’s motivation to learn.

Acknowledgement and celebration of success are essential to learning. Success must be experienced before it can be acknowledged and celebrated, however. If the education process neither authorizes nor facilitates the ability of teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn, not only are students deprived of the opportunity to master subject matter, they are denied the opportunity to celebrate success, which reinforces the learning process and their motivation to learn.

Recall, always, the learning process is, itself, learned behavior.

It is true they do not control student achievement, but teachers have power to influence that achievement, provided they are able to exercise discretion and exert some level of control over the education process.  If the education process does not accommodate that freedom of action, on the part of teachers, it must be replaced.

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