Don't Blame Teachers! Factors That Influence Student Learning (Hint: Teacher Quality is NOT #1!)


You don't have to be a teacher, parent or politician to be cognizant of the latest trend in educational reform: the "accepted wisdom" that if a student isn't learning, there's a teacher somewhere that deserves the blame.  Documentaries appear to prove that anyone can learn if only a certain formula of best practices + high expectation is followed.  Movies turn the idea of "bad teachers" into a comic device.  (I admit, I laughed.)  No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on supposed "research based practices," encodes the idea that there's a magic formula of theory + market-based incentives that can result in 100% student achievement by the year 2012.  (This one makes me laugh too, but for different reasons.)

I'm a teacher, yes, but no idealog or militant.  I accept that - absolutely - teacher quality plays a huge role in promoting student learning.  But I despair at the political/social/moral forces that have caused us, as a nation, to willfully overlook the inconvenient truth that on a comprehensive list of factors that predict/influence student learning, teacher expertise ranks somewhere around #11.  Don't believe me?  Here are 10 factors, each beyond the ability of teachers to influence, that have a huge impact on a student's ability to academically thrive.

  1. Home Environment. A teacher has a student 7 hrs. a day.  But the other 17 hrs. of the day (plus the 5yrs before they start school + weekends + summer vacations) they are at home with family members, being shaped and influenced in ways that absolutely impact their learning.  In homes where children are surrounded by books, immersed in conversation/literature that encourages intellectual curiosity,  and raised by family members who model achievement, children are inherently molded into learners.  Indeed, data proves that kids of parents who went to college are far more likely to go to college.  But what about the millions of students who grow up in homes devoid of books?  Where critical thinking skills are rarely modelled?  Where there is no tradition of educational achievement?  No matter how brilliant a teacher's lesson plan, it can't compensate for these deficiencies.  
  2. Poverty. If public schools are free, then why is poverty an issue?  Frankly, kids who live in poverty have many more pressing things to worry about than academic achievement.  Like whether they're going to eat that day.  Like where they're going to sleep that night.  (If they're going to sleep at all: sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded apartment doesn't lend itself to deep, satisfying slumber.)  Like finding a part-time job to help bring in money for the family.  Like rushing home every day to care for their younger siblings while mom/dad work a second (or third) job.  All of this hugely impacts a child's ability to concentrate at school and complete homework at home.  Nor is that all.  Students raised in poverty have higher levels of absenteeism, are more likely to have gaps in their educational history due to frequent moves, are less likely have access to adequate medical care, are more likely to have disabilities that impact learning*, and are more likely to experience one or more of the other deficits on this list ... all of which negatively correlate with academic performance.  (*I get tired of skeptics shouting: "Poverty doesn't make kids disabled!"  Of course it doesn't - but if the family is poor, it's often because the parent(s) didn't finish high school, which is often due to one or more disabilities that impacted their ability to learn, making it statistically much more likely that their children will inherit disabilities that impact their learning.)
  3. Social & Cultural Factors.  Max-Neef's classic hierarchy of fundamental human needs goes like this:  subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.  Social factors such as family instability (divorce, frequent moves), absent parents, insalubrious neighborhoods (gangs, crime, bullying, substance abuse), and neglect (physical, psychological or emotional) undermine almost every single one of these needs, making it extraordinarily unrealistic for students in these situations to focus on academics.  All the worse if one of the cultural issues our students are battling is a pervasive "street bias" against succeeding in school. 
  4. Effort/Internal Motivation/Persistence/Resiliency.  When was the last time you read a biography of a teenage slacker who ended up as a titan of science, politics, or industry? Not saying this doesn't happen, but far more common are stories of individuals who possessed from an early age the drive, courage, and resilience to succeed in spite of any/all odds stacked against them.  Much has been written about the so-called "Entitlement Generation" - children born after ~1970 who believe that achievement is granted rather than earned. Whether or not you agree, the fact remains that students must at some point take responsibility for their own learning. When led to water, they must be willing to drink - which, this generation, means choosing academics over the myriad other distractions competing for their attention: video games, cellphones, social networks, etc.  Because no amount of external motivation [encouragement, active learning, best practices, etc.] will ever compensate for the absence of internal motivation when it comes to student learning.
  5. Cognition/Aptitude.  It's a shame the real world isn't more like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." In actual fact, human intelligence is represented by a bell curve, meaning that about 80% of us possess so-called "normal" intelligence, while a smaller percent possess higher than average intelligence and approximately the same percentage possess lower than average intelligence. Many folks in this latter percentage will live full and fulfilling lives.  However, what they won't be able to do, ever, is to demonstrate the higher-level critical thinking skills (making inferences, drawing conclusions, generalizing, etc.) required to master our standard public school curriculum. Which is why the NCLB goal of 100% achievement by 2012 makes me laugh; apparently our legislators weren't paying attention in school when they should have been learning about bell curves!
  6. Learning/Emotional Disabilities.  Even kids with normal cognition may possess physical and emotional disabilities that significantly impact their ability to learn.  Learning disabilities impair such critical functions as short/long term memory, phonological discrimination (the ability to discriminate the sounds that make up words), auditory processing, visual processing, and gross/fine motor skills.  Just try learning multi-step equations in math when you can't process what your teacher is saying and you have a working memory the size of a pea.  And then there are the raft of wrenching emotional disabilities that can impact students as young as kindergarten: depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety, defiance disorders, schizophrenia ...  It's hard to fault a student for failing to place a premium on their education when pretty much all their energy is expended on trying to make it through the another day.
  7. Physical/Neurological Disabilities.  And let us not forget the raft of physical and neurological disabilities that impact student learning as well. In my short teaching career I've encountered hundreds of students with attention disorders, dozens of students with autism spectrum disorders, and a host of students with other neurological challenges (epilepsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, Tourette's Syndrome, Prater-Wiley Syndrome) that impair focus, attendance, and cognitive ability.  While federal/state laws do a good job of assuring that the more obvious physical challenges - physical impairments, blindness, hearing loss - are accommodated, the negative effects of health impairments such as chronic ear infections, toothaches, migraines, asthma, diabetes, and vision/hearing deficits are often overlooked.
  8. Second Language Learners.  As the demographic composition of the U.S. continues to shift, more students than ever are entering the U.S. school system with a limited grasp of English.  This problem is exacerbated by the number of immigrants coming from countries where they may have received little or no education in their native language.  (Why is this important? Because it means they have no foundation in number sense or phonics, skills essential for mastering basic math and English.)  Children are often able to achieve a grasp of "social language" rather quickly, but this masks the fact that mastery of "academic language" takes much longer (4-7) years, and mastery of written language takes longer still (5-10 years) ... and these processes may take even longer if students are returning to households where English is never spoken, further limiting their opportunities to practice the language.  While they may possess the cognitive ability to master the curriculum, these students will not be able to fully  access the necessary instruction until they are first able to master the language in which the instruction is delivered.
  9. Literacy/Cultural Literacy.  You don't hear this one addressed as often as the others, but ask any teacher about major factors impeding the learning of students from families that come from other cultures, speak other languages, or grow up in deprived circumstances, and they'll tell you that their lack of adequate vocabulary and cultural literacy are critical deficits.  Why does vocab matter?  Studies have shown that the number of words a person understands correlates with their ability to comprehend meaning.   Think of it this way - there's a big difference between "he shouted" and "he railed" ... but a kid who doesn't understand the word 'railed' isn't going to perceive that and so will miss out on critical implied meaning.  Why does cultural literacy matter?  Don't want to bore anyone with neurological research, so take me on faith when I say that the way our brains store new information is to "hook it" to existing information, aka "schemas."  As might be expected, a dearth of existing schemas makes it that much more difficult to learn and retain new information.  Don't believe me? Just try teaching The Watsons Go to Birmingham (a middle school literary staple) to students who have no knowledge of the Civil Rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, the proximity of Mississippi relative to Michigan, comic books, record players, southern dialect, or the fact that if it's cold enough, your tongue will stick to frost on a car.  These kids have an enormous learning curve to tackle before they can even begin to access the curriculum.
  10. Learning Environment.  Here we are down at #10, and only just beginning to touch on what you might call "school factors," one of the most important being the conditions in which students learn.  No matter how skilled the teacher, their effectiveness can be undermined by dozens of physical factors including (but not limited to) over-enrolled classes, poor school discipline, filthy/unsafe classroom conditions, inadequate heating/air conditioning, inadequate time, inadequate resources, excessive administrative requirements, misguided "reform" initiatives, and inadequate administrative support.
  11. Teacher Expertise.  That's right.  Number #11.  Because no matter how much training, expertise and passion teachers bring to the classroom, they aren't the ones drawing their students into conversation over the dinner table, can't singlehandedly rescue their families from poverty, can't fix the rotten families/neighborhoods they live in, can't fill their bedrooms with books, can't deliver lessons in their home language, can't medicate them for headaches, can't make their disabilities go away, and can't teach IQ ... though most of us try to anyway. 
But if all of the above is true, then why do people persist in blaming teachers for students' lack of success?  Because, of course, factors #1 - #10 are so difficult to fix, no one possesses the will or resources to try.  Also, companies that sell curriculum (companies with products aligned to core curriculum particularly) and educational services (testing, technology, charter schools) have an enormous vested interest in making us believe teachers are the problem, because their business model relies on convincing folks that teachers/teaching is "broken" and they are the only ones who can fix the problem ... for a price.

I'm willing to grant that there are bad teachers out there, and that the efforts of unions to protect these teachers from being fired make me wince.  I'm willing to acknowledge that there exist research-based practices that can and do improve student learning, when implemented in sensible ways.  I'm willing to cheerfully attend trainings, to participate in professional mentoring opportunities, and to have my teaching practices consistently monitored and evaluated by professionals in my field to ensure that I am teaching as effectively as humanly possible.

What I'm not willing to grant is that when a student fails, there is inevitably - somewhere - a teacher to blame.  And until society is willing to acknowledge the 2-ton gorilla in the room - that pretending #1-10 don't exist doesn't actually make them go away - all teacher-bashing is going to do is to perpetuate illogical expectations and scare qualified, driven teachers out of the profession.


  1. As a veteran teacher of the Chicago Public Schools, I am offended by this list. Teacher quality is the #1 factor in student success and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to cover up their own shortcomings as an educator.

    Yes, the other factors listed here are important, but I have seen too many great student minds wasted by terrible teachers to buy into the erroneous arguments presented here.

    Please stop hurting students by making up an arbitrary list of factors and do your job better.

  2. Classroom management is the number 1 factor that determines student learning. Socio/economic conditions come in at no. 28. Your list is not supported by any academic research on education.