A few days ago I wrote about the real problems caused by distractions in the classroom. Today I’d like to focus on other ways students can be affected by their peers.
my sophomore world history class (probably the most challenging class
I’ve ever had the opportunity to teach), there are a handful
of particularly bright students failing. They’re what some of my former
colleagues would have referred to as fence riders.
The idea behind fence riders is this: in any given class, there is a
small group of students who will act like scholars no matter who is
around them. There is another small group of students who will act just
the opposite no matter who is around them. In a class like the one I’m
describing, squelching negative behaviors from the latter group early in the semester is key to avoiding something just short of a
classroom management apocalypse. But the horsemen of my doomsday ride
the fence, rather than horses, and there are a lot more than four of
them. They base their behaviors on the behaviors of their peers. And I’m
noticing a trickle-down effect.
I have a small handful of students (group 1) in that class who will
deface and steal my property; run, jump, and throw things around the
room the second they notice my eyes are not on them; and use swear words
toward each other and toward me - often with impunity since I
have neither the time nor energy to follow up with every misbehavior.
There is another slightly larger group (group 2) of students who
exist just next to the students in group 1 on the mis/behavior
continuum. Were they at the end of this continuum in my class, the worst one might witness would probably include off-task behavior and
the occasional cuss word. But when group 1 has lowered the expectations
for positive behavior with my tacit approval (as it’s obvious to all
students that I cannot follow up on every single misbehavior, especially
the ones I don’t see) to such depths, the behaviors of group 2, group 3, and group 4 (on
the mis/behavior continuum) becomes that much worse. Even those students
who normally achieve at high levels in other classes regularly allow
themselves to be distracted from their work and rarely turn anything in.
One of those normally high achieving students (we’ll call him Sean)
began the year in my class with an A. Every assignment was dutifully
taken care of; he stayed after school a number of hours working on the
material; and he always paid attention in class. After a few months, his
effort dropped off precipitously. He now spends most of his time in
class joking and avoiding his work. I haven’t received an assignment
from him in nearly two weeks.
A negative classroom culture established by a handful of disruptive
students has, in many ways, defeated my efforts thus far. I was new to
the school at the beginning of the year (with no curriculum) and
dreadfully unprepared for the onslaught of disruptive behavior that came
my way. I’ve retreated, amassed my reinforcements, and begun my
counterattack after realizing that my attempts at improving the class
through democratic discussion were routinely being subverted by those
group 1 students, the ones that few other students have been
brave enough to stand up to or speak out in front of.
My point is this: peers play an enormous role in a student’s
education. A student like Sean would excel with me as a teacher in a
classroom full of highly achieving peers who would look down on him for
not turning in his homework. In his reality, he’s failing. Adults don't warn their children about the negative effects of peer pressure for nothing; it can have powerful impacts on a person's behavior.
But contrast that reality with assumptions being made by educational
policymakers. In our nation’s capital, DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown is drafting a bill that would recruit “effective” teachers (as judged by
IMPACT) in wards 2 and 3 to work in DC’s most underprivileged schools,
in wards 7 and 8. In New York City, Michael Bloomberg recently said that
in a perfect world, we would double our class sizes and pay teachers
twice as much (since there would be half as many). Effective educators
are more important variables in a student’s education than his or her
peers, the thinking goes.
Policymakers are missing something: experience, and the perspective
that comes with it. Mr Bloomberg needs to know that doubling the class
size in an affluent school where students are highly motivated, and
pressure each other to perform academically, might not do society all that
much harm. But double it in my environment and you may as well just
stop trying to educate altogether and spend the money somewhere else.
(It reminds me of the summer I spent teaching English to seventy 12, 13,
and 14-year-old Liberian refugees in a hot West African schoolhouse
with no windows. I walked away from that experience positive that the
only person who learned anything in that room was me.) Mr Brown would
do well to consider the immense number of variables that contribute to
the quality of a given learning environment and the factors that led to
those teachers in wards 2 and 3 being labeled “effective” in the first place
(I highly suspect one of the most important was the students in front of
Despite the deluge of teacher-is-the-most-important-factor
talking points gushing from politicians’ mouths these days, there is, as
always, significantly more to the story. Teacher quality is undoubtedly
extremely important. But treating it as if it were the only
factor that matters does irreparable damage to both the meaningfulness
of the discussion around school reform and the quality of education our