4 Barriers to Student Success that Educators Need to Be Talking About

Hamre: Limits to ed tech, gaps in professional development and weak accountability aren't hot topics, but they make teachers' jobs harder.

This is a photo of a teacher stressed at her desk.

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The hot education topics that dominate the news cycle, social media and conference breakout sessions aren’t always the most relevant to those in the field. When conversations outside the classroom revolve around the latest ed tech breakthroughs and the pros and cons of ChatGPT, it’s easy to tune out the day-to-day struggles teachers face. 

It’s time to identify, understand and discuss the under-the-radar issues that are hindering student success and revisit practices that could help solve four of the most critical. Addressing them now can help improve student outcomes for years to come.

There are learning barriers ed tech cannot break through. When children in historically marginalized and under-resourced communities walk into the classroom, many are already steps behind their peers. For families who struggled to meet basic needs before COVID, the pandemic only exacerbated the difficulties they faced, including homelessness, food insecurity and a lack of affordable child care. Four years later, many children have yet to feel physically and emotionally healthy and safe, which has increased academic disengagement, chronic absenteeism and learning loss, especially in economically challenged areas.

But when schools offer a learning environment that removes sensitivity triggers like bright lights and loud noises, and teachers focus on self-regulation, trust and empathy as much as they do on math and reading, children are better able to navigate their emotions and focus on learning. Even one stable and committed relationship with a trusted adult bolsters a child’s resilience to adversity. The more supportive the classroom, the less likely students are to show increased levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

Professional development is failing to address a key factor in student success. Each year, school districts invest millions in professional development. However, most training doesn’t align with teachers’ needs, especially for educators working with English learners and students with disabilities. There’s also little evidence that professional development strongly correlates with student achievement.

Instead of focusing their training budgets on current trends, districts can offer professional learning and evidence-based coaching centered on fostering meaningful interactions to build the teacher-student bond and close achievement gaps. This is particularly critical in high-poverty areas where educators lack the support and resources to focus on interactions that build vital social-emotional learning skills.

When teachers’ powers of observation are strengthened, and they cultivate the skills to respond appropriately to each student’s needs, they build healthy bonds that help children feel safe and secure. For instance, a study by the U.S. Department of Education found that ongoing, evidence-based, one-to-one coaching helps educators boost student achievement. This is especially true for teachers with less than five years’ experience and those with weak instructional practices. These effective interactions promote gains in literacy, vocabulary and self-control.

Accountability systems aren’t measuring the most important elements of students’ experiences. One notable example comes from early childhood education, where almost every state has its own Quality Rating and Improvement System — and each measures success differently. Some look only at factors related to the learning environment, such as the number of books in a classroom or assurances that safety measures are in place.

Accountability systems can dig deeper by using interactions as the key indicator of whether the school is delivering the best outcomes. By classifying and measuring educator-child interactions across three domains — emotional support, instructional support and classroom organization — states can gain the information needed to guide focused, ongoing improvement that helps children thrive academically, cognitively and emotionally

In Louisiana, where 40% of pre-K students lacked critical kindergarten skills, the state set its sights on an interactions-based model that can both provide essential accountability data and identify areas for student improvement. Through the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, the state helped teachers identify where they struggled and provided personalized guidance and professional development aligned with their needs. As a result, Louisiana tripled the number of sites with the highest performance rating on its quality measurement scale.

Development of critical skills is sacrificed for standardized testing. While there continue to be calls to reform standardized testing, districts are under mounting pressure to demonstrate student progress post-pandemic. Clearly, a focus on math, science and reading is warranted, but educators must also make space for core skills needed for success in school and in life. These include the “Five C” foundational principles: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication and citizenship. Equipped with these tools, students can think more deeply about their experiences, learn from others and engage in civil discourse with their peers.

Play-based, project-based and deep learning allows students to dive into different concepts and creatively apply their knowledge to real-world issues. In addition, educators are able to connect with curious students through their interests, observe their actions and formulate open-ended questions around them, helping build that critical educator-child bond. Countless studies demonstrate the long-term value of investment in these core skills as they return strong academic outcomes, attendance, school engagement and behavior.

Amid all the cutting-edge solutions that are capturing attention, it is important not to lose sight of the proven power of life-changing interactions between teachers and their students. Ed tech resources are powerful tools, but they can’t replace the impact of supportive relationships. Teachers must have the training and resources that make them possible.

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