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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

No Choice But Success

Great urban teachers share a common belief: It's their job to make sure that all students achieve.

No Choice But Success- thumbnail
If we allow students to fail, some will. The only way to ensure that all students succeed, therefore, is to remove failure as an option. That's the message we heard from teachers and students in several urban classrooms in which all students did appear to succeed. The teachers, whom we met as part of a three-year research project, believed that the responsibility for student success rested on educators' shoulders. As one explained,My philosophy is that “All students can learn,” not “All students can learn, but. . . .” The key is giving them enough time and support.
Not all of their colleagues agreed. Some teachers repeatedly cited what they viewed as insurmountable obstacles. One group blamed lack of student motivation; they asserted that students must learn to hold up their end of the bargain and that too much instructional “hand-holding” by the teacher would be counterproductive. One teacher explained this position:I try to teach them responsibility and that they will succeed because they want to. My job is to teach. My job stops at 3:00. It is their responsibility from 3:00 until 8:30 the next morning. Today I threw some homework in the trash that had no names on it. I have been telling them all year long that they need to put their name on it. I finally drew the line and told them they would get a zero for today's homework assignment. It is my job to pass on information, but it is their job to do homework. There is only so much I can do. I can't knock on the door of their home and ask if they are reading. My job is to set clear consequences for their actions.
Another group of teachers located the major source of student failure in the home; they believed that student apathy was the result of parents' failure to place enough importance on learning. As one teacher commented,Even without parental intervention, some of our students want to succeed and enjoy learning, but the older they get and the more difficult the work is, the harder it is to keep them in school when the parents are not interested. They learn excuses from [their parents]. If they aren't expected to succeed, they often quit trying.
Essentially, both of these groups of teachers were saying that they wanted reciprocity for their efforts from students and parents. Although they strove to overcome the obstacles they faced as teachers in low-income communities, experience had convinced them that they could only do so much. Teachers with this mind-set viewed colleagues who refused to accept student failure as unrealistic.
These diverse assumptions about the ultimate responsibility for student success emerged as a core theme in a three-year research project we conducted in two medium-sized urban school districts. Both districts served diverse student populations, had achievement gaps between lower- and higher-income students, and were urgently trying to find ways to close these gaps.
School officials in each district welcomed our research as one of several potentially useful data sources they could use to consider future strategies, and they gave us access to all their elementary and secondary schools that had diverse student bodies. We conducted initial surveys and interviews with parents, students, teachers, and administrators in these schools and subsequently visited the classrooms of a sample of teachers from each grade level in each school.
Combining our classroom observations with teachers' and students' accounts of their instructional experiences, we identified a distinctive, albeit small, group of teachers who did not accept failure. Mrs. Franklin and Miss Behrens were typical of that small group. Both teachers used many best practices—cooperative groups, checking for understanding, hands-on activities, connecting new content to prior knowledge, and the like. But we had observed other classrooms in which teachers used these same practices without reaping positive results from all students. The difference appeared to stem more from the teachers' attitudes than from any particular instructional method they used. Incessantly vigilant, these two teachers held students accountable for their actions, to be sure—but at the same time they refused to let students fail.

“Like One of Your Family”

Mrs. Franklin was an African American, veteran 6th grade teacher whose school served mostly minority students. In her inimitable rapid-fire delivery, she launched into a polemic that sharply contrasted with the rationale of the teacher who gave zeroes for unsigned homework:We don't have any kids who cannot do it. They have been allowed to get away with it. I believe they will perform well if they know I am concerned about what they do. I do think we have a group that someone has given up on. It is real easy to not expect much. That bothers me. We've given them an excuse to not do well. One of my major things is, [even if a student is] learning-disabled or severely handicapped, in here, “we” is all of us. You will do 25 problems [the full assignment], but you may need more help to do it. Kids aren't the problem; adults are the ones finding the excuses.
Mrs. Franklin's classroom had no room for poor performance. She employed a richly varied mix of instructional strategies, but what really ensured success was her underlying approach. She cajoled, teased, berated, and praised the students on their way to improved achievement.
Mrs. Franklin had established a grading policy that any student work earning a grade lower than a C must be done over. She emphatically pointed out that she did not give every student a C; instead, she insisted that every student earn a C or better. The students were fully aware that the teacher would not let them off the hook. But rather than resenting that fact, the students explained that they appreciated it:Interviewer: What's a good teacher?Student: They make sure all kids get the work done. If the kids don't get good grades, let 'em do it over. Like our teacher.Interviewer: What does your teacher do?Student: My teacher's strict.Interviewer: What do you mean by “strict”?Student: She wants you to get your work done. If you don't, you stay until you get it done.Interviewer: What do you think of that?Student: I like it.Interviewer: Why?Student: Because I want to pass and not get stuck in this grade another year, or I'll be driving to class. She say, “You gonna be driving your family with you to school [unless you finally get a C].”
The students made it clear that Mrs. Franklin's refusal to accept failure actually put the responsibility for passing directly on them. As one explained,My teacher never let people settle for D or E; she don't let people get away with it. She give us an education. Other teachers don't care what you do. They pass you to be passing. Here, I pass my own self.
This teacher closely monitored students' performance. During class discussions, she consistently asked all students to indicate whether they knew the answer to a question, sometimes waiting until every hand was raised and then randomly calling on a student and sometimes walking around to each table and questioning each student. This strategy ensured that she would hear from every student during every lesson. She commented, “The worst thing is to go through school and have no one know what you looked like.”
Group work played an important role in Mrs. Franklin's classroom. She had the students sit in groups to encourage them to rely on one another and share ideas and answers. The teacher frequently admonished students during the lesson if they did not take advantage of this aid:Raise your hand if you find [the answer]. If you are sitting in a group [which all the students were], help each other. If one person in a group has a hand up, all in the group should have their hands up.
According to one of her students, the groups exhibited the supportive characteristics that the teacher desired:Interviewer: How do you like to work: in a group or by yourself?Student: In a group, because if everybody pitch in, we all get the right answer.Interviewer: Does everybody pitch in, or does one person do it?Student: In my group, everybody do the work.
The teacher made sure students knew that she was concerned about whether they were learning and that she would help them:I have some students who say, “I don't want a C.” Then we stay after school. I say, “I can stay all night.” On Friday, when the building empties out fast, we are the only ones left here. I also make house calls and show up on the porch with a book in my hand. My key phrase is, “I'm like one of your family.” I just don't accept mediocrity. The world is too demanding, too competitive. The kids need to think they are doing better each day. [They need to] think “I did the best I could” at the end of the day.

“I Don't Want Excuses”

Miss Behrens, a white teacher who had been in the profession for fewer than five years, taught English in a large urban high school whose student body was approximately 50 percent minority. She often worried about how to hook students into learning, particularly those who seemed detached from school. Her personal style was more low-key but no less passionate than Mrs. Franklin's. She relied on a similarly diverse set of instructional strategies, but again, it was her never-let-up attitude that united the strategies under a common banner. She provided opportunities for active learning in groups and emphasized connecting classroom content to students' lives:I believe in the student-directed classroom. Curriculum must be related to students' own lives. They must be given the opportunity to make choices and participate in meaningful activities. When we studied Julius Caesar, the students could elect to portray meaning through art, a play, or a paper. For Othello, I asked them to write about a time when they were jealous or translate a passage from Shakespeare into Ebonics. Kids can prove they've understood in different ways. I need to know what motivates and interests them.
Students appreciated the teacher's efforts to make learning relevant and active, and they agreed that such an approach was more likely to engage them in school. As one said, “If you have fun, you are more likely to remember the material.”
Miss Behrens was adamant, however, that the fact that she used a host of different strategies to reach students did not mean she adopted differing definitions of success. Indeed, this educator directed her professional ire at colleagues who accepted a student's weak effort without insisting that the student do the work to a high standard. She expressed annoyance at some teachers' low standards:We must raise standards and stop worrying about how this looks on paper. I'm really appalled by the level of standards of teachers. Teachers use kids as an excuse instead of [seeing] the need to work harder.
Such tenacity on the part of a teacher was uncommon, according to one student who firmly believed that he would have failed had he not been in Miss Behrens's class:In English class, the teacher is like what I want to have in all my classes. We've had things in there I'm not used to doing. But she say to me, “You are too intelligent to stop doing what you working on; you are a good person; you have the knowledge to do the work.” She is just a good teacher. I still come into her class mad sometimes and say, “Aw, come on, I don't want to,” but I know I will have to do it. If I don't understand it, she will sit down and explain it to me. That shows me she is really trying to teach me so I can get it on my own. If something is really hard, she will stay after school to help. Some teachers will just write notes home saying I'm not getting it. I like the teacher to pay attention to what I'm doing.
Referring to this student, Miss Behrens explained how she had gradually pushed him to take more responsibility:He started out playing with me. He would ask to go to the health center, and I realized he wasn't really going there, so I called him on it. I called his uncle. He was shocked that I took the time to do that. Now he knows that I care enough about him to stay on him. Then he started complaining that the work was too hard. I've found, though, that if you set your standards high, students will come up to them. If I encourage him, he will do it. My role is to reassure him, so that eventually he will gain confidence.
The teacher summed up her feelings about working in a low-income, urban environment by decrying colleagues' willingness to accept limits to their effectiveness as teachers:I am sick of being singled out as a district. We're an inner-city school, and people use that as an excuse to do poorly. It makes me angry. The kids do have special needs. Every kid does. But I don't want excuses. I want the standards to come up. They still need to get an education, and I will do all I can to help them get that education!

Teaching for Success

We cannot claim that Mrs. Franklin's and Miss Behrens's students tested better than those in the other classrooms we observed. All we had to go on were students' testimonials and the fact that none of them received Ds or Fs on any assignments in the two classes.
However, we discovered a school in each of the two districts we studied—one elementary and one junior high—in which achievement on standardized measures ran counter to the prevailing patterns. Both had the highest or nearly the highest standardized test results at their level within their district, despite having larger populations of special-needs and low-income students. Notably, neither school suffered a gap in achievement between lower-income and higher-income students.
The two schools differed from the other schools in their districts in terms of certain day-to-day operations. For example, the elementary school included every employed adult in school-based professional development activities and pressed nearly everyone into instructional duty during the school day. The junior high school adopted a grading system that provided only for As and Bs. Any work below B quality received an I for incomplete and had to be redone until the student achieved a B—on every assignment.
But the most telling difference was that in these two schools alone, every teacher we talked to (and we interviewed almost all of them) asserted that he or she was responsible for student success. The qualities that made their school different from the others, they attested, derived solely from their desire to act on this belief. Like their highly effective colleagues scattered throughout the two districts, these teachers argued that they could not alter conditions outside school that impinged on student performance, but they could affect the conditions in their classrooms. Using best practices alone was insufficient; effective teaching meant giving students no other choice but success.
End Notes

1 The research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the Department's policy. The research is reported in full in Corbett, D., Wilson, B., & Williams, B. (2002). Effort and excellence in urban classrooms: Expecting—and getting—success with all students. New York: Teachers College Press and Washington, DC: National Education Association.

2 Teachers' names are pseudonyms.

Dick Corbett has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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